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Daoud Kuttab

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Rare Sign of Palestinian Backbone: Standing Up to US and Israeli Pressures

Posted: 09/08/11 10:31 AM ET

The Palestinian leadership is experiencing a unique situation. Its insistence on going to the UN to seek recognition for statehood despite pressure from Israel and the US is beginning to bear fruit at the local level. Popular support for President Mahmoud Abbas is on an upwards trajectory as the majority of Palestinians are pleasantly surprised by their leader's determination.

Not that many expect immediate and tangible results from going to the UN or from a positive declaration itself. However, after years of caving in to every pressure, the fact that the head of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority is insisting on a strategic decision seems to be helping the demoralized Palestinians.

This positive popular support is also reflected in the position of the various political factions. Radical PLO factions and Hamas leaders who are constantly second guessing and questioning the Palestinian leadership's political direction are left speechless. They cannot possibly oppose the move at the UN when the Israelis and the Americans are daily heaping pressure on the Palestinian leader and over 130 countries are publicly supporting it.

A number of local and regional leaders who are opposed to the Palestinians' seeking state recognition at the UN chose not to publicly express their position. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who favors a de facto, rather than de jure, statehood at the present time, has chosen to keep his position to himself. While Jordan, a strong US ally, is concerned about the possible negative results of a move that is not done with the acquiescence of the powerful Israelis has chosen not to express its position publicly and instead has been publicly supportive

For a Palestinian leadership that for decades has been used to back away under pressure, Abbas' present position is puzzling to many. Some argued that frustration with years of ineffective bilateral talks led to this inevitable move. Others believe that the aging Palestinian leader is serious about not running in the next elections and wants the UN declaration to be his legacy.

Whatever the reason, Palestinians are witnessing a revitalized and more popular leadership than they had in some time. Nevertheless many questions still remain. Is this the end of a phase or the beginning of one? What will happen the day after? Is the Palestinian leadership so focused on getting the world to recognize statehood that it failed to consider a domestic plan to support such a declaration on the ground?

Abbas' public declarations have confused many. He has said that after the declaration, Palestinians will be willing to negotiate. Why abandon talks, get a declaration of a state and then return to direct talks? One young activist suggested that after the declaration of statehood, there should be multilateral, and not bilateral, talks. Palestine should only have indirect talks about how to disengage the occupation from the newly declared state.

Another confusing statement by the Palestinian president regards protests. He seems to be eager to assure the Israelis and the Americans that no third Intifada will erupt. While he has apparently supported popular and nonviolent protests, it is clear that Abbas and the Palestinian security would prefer quiet demonstrations in the Manara Square, in Ramallah, or Nativity Square, in Bethlehem, rather than any protests (nonviolent or otherwise) that confront the Israeli occupiers, the illegal settlers and the checkpoints barring Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem or even other West Bank towns.

The idea of returning to negotiations and opposing confrontational demonstrations lets many believe that for the Palestinian president this is a onetime act and that after the declaration, the Palestinian leadership will return to its usual obedient mode.

Clearly the Palestinian move by the UN has hit a raw nerve with the Israelis and has frustrated Washington. Few Palestinians see anything wrong with the move, although many are not certain that it will produce tangible results.

While not having high expectations, the Palestinian public for now is pleased with a leadership that has found the backbone to stand up to pressure from Israel and the US. This will certainly help Abbas in the short term. But if the aftereffects of the UN move are not seen within a reasonable time, the same public might change its position and turn against its leadership.

 

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