In the autumn of 2011, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas embarked on a controversial diplomatic offensive to have the United Nations recognize the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. While Abbas asserts that this strategy is neither intended to delegitimize nor embarrass Israel, the United States, Israel and most European nations view it as a mechanism to bypass direct talks with Israel. These countries have insisted that only direct negotiations between the two parties can achieve a political settlement. On November 11, the 15-member Security Council failed to reach a consensus and Abbas' bid remains stalled.
Last week, reports confirmed that Israel and the PLO held their first series of direct talks in Jordan since 2010. Both sides met again on January 9, and although Israeli and Palestinian leaders have refrained from elaborating on details, they have expressed doubt that such talks could produce a positive outcome. However, Abbas has threatened Israel with a January 26 ultimatum: Enact a settlement freeze and provide an outline for talks around the 1967 borders or else "all options are open to us."
Abbas has denied that a third intifada would erupt in the absence of diplomatic breakthrough. Rather, he has hinted that Palestinians will continue their struggle to gain recognition in the UN, although this approach would most probably fail, since the United States has repeatedly insisted it would veto any bid for Palestinian unilateral independence.
It is more likely that all of the major Palestinian factions have come to realize two significant truths. The Arab Spring has clearly demonstrated that popular resistance has the potential to depose dictators. If protestors in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen fail to overthrow their leaders, a precedent has been established in the region whereby the status quo ante era of kleptocracy and autocracy has ended. The international community is watching and even if some Arab leaders remain in power, their confidence has been shaken and hopefully they will make even limited concessions.
Islamist parties -- not the progressive liberals or Internet savvy youth -- are on the rise in the Middle East. From Morocco to the Gulf, Islamist parties have gained much support in recent elections. This will surely create a more sympathetic stance towards the Palestinians. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh stated that "The Palestinian cause is winning" and that "Gaza was a main reason for the Arab Spring."
This new political paradigm might embolden Palestinians to favor radical solutions over political solutions. Last December, veteran diplomat Hanan Ashrawi announced on Voice of Palestine that if negotiations failed, the PLO could renounce its recognition of Israel. This would effectively align the PLO's status to that of the more hard-line rejectionist factions such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also declared that the Palestinian Authority "will collapse without the peace process" yet he argued this constituted more of a warning than a threat.
For better or worse, if Israel fails to satisfy Abbas's conditions by January 26, it may face an unprecedented combination of diplomatic and popular resistance to force concessions and demand recognition of a Palestinian state. Israel cannot negotiate out of fear but it concurrently cannot stand oblivious to the fundamental transformations which have occurred because of the Arab Spring. To offset the prospect of further Palestinian unilateralism, which does not grant any security guarantees to Israel, direct and sincere talks are the only viable option.