Let's Buy President Mahmoud Abbas a Chair
When the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the mid 17th century wrote his Pensées on the human condition could he have been thinking about the Palestinians? His famous adage, "All of man's misfortunes come from one thing which is not being able to sit quietly in a room," seems to fit Palestinian political behavior admirably.
Whether he is a real political moderate or not Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, has been moving around rather than sitting quietly. He took the step of requesting that the designation of Palestinian representatives at the United Nations be changed from "non-member observer entity," to "non-member observer state of Palestine." He won a symbolic victory when the UN General Assembly on November 29, 2012, by a majority of 138 to 9 with 41 abstentions voted to approve this action. The political aftermath of this vote remains to be decided but it is useful to examine its background.
As a consequence of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and then the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of May 4, 1994, the Palestinian Authority (sometimes referred to as the Palestinian National Authority) was established. Set up for a five-year interim period the PA became the administrative organization to govern parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on civil issues and internal security issues, not external security of foreign affairs.
Theoretically, the PA is accountable to the Executive Committee of the PLO which has been accepted because of the pressure of Yasser Arafat on the international community as "the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." Within the PLO the Fatah group, though challenged politically and militarily by Hamas, remains in control both of the organization and of the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas has been chairman of the PLO since November 2004 and President of the PA since January 2005 and retains that position though his term has legally expired and he has no legitimate authority. Nevertheless, the PA maintains it has control of all the claimed Palestinian territory but clearly since Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2008 this has not been the case.
Since the November 2012 vote Abbas has taken some more steps, small though they might be. He has asked his own officials to change their stationery to refer to the present autonomous government not as the "Palestinian Authority", but as the "State of Palestine." Similarly, he also called on foreign states, who are willing to do so, in their exchanges with the Palestinian Authority to refer to the "State of Palestine."
This change, whether or not regarded as another symbolic act, does not alter the condition or increase the welfare of Palestinians in any way. Few international lawyers would agree that a change of name is equivalent to requisite conditions for establishment of a "state."
Abbas is not, at least at present, taking the step to call for passports or identity cards to be changed to register Palestinian identity as citizens of the "State." Moreover, he has not so far moved to attempt to gain Palestinian membership in other international agencies, including the International Criminal Court.
But "moving" is not the most desirable activity for President Abbas. It may be as he says that he is not prepared for any confrontation with Israel. At the same time, he has shown no inclination in ending the conflict with Israel or the acceptance of a two state solution. Mr. Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad are said, by some critics of Israel, to be more open than previous Palestinian leaders including Yasser Arafat to real negotiations with Israel. What is now needed on their part is concrete positive action not pointless rhetoric.
The time has come for Abbas to resume peace talks and enter into direct, meaningful negotiations. For that he and his advisers need to stop moving in the direction they are going. For the negotiations they will need chairs on which to sit. International organizations and the U.S. have given large sums of money to the Palestinians. If they are genuinely interested in successful peace negotiations the 138 nations who voted for the resolution in the UNGA will surely furnish the money or mount a subscription to buy Abbas and his team sturdy chairs that will last through the long delayed negotiations through which as Pascal might have said they could sit, though meaningfully as well as quietly.
Michael Curtis is author of "Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under Attack by the International Community."