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Palestine Analysis: What Did Mahmoud Abbas Win for Palestinians --- and for Himself --- at the United Nations?

Mahmoud Abbas' speech at the United Nations General Assembly, 29 November 2012

Editor's Note: This is the first article for EA by Charlotte Alfred, an editor at Ma'an News Agency, based in the West Bank.

In the West Bank, Palestine Independence Day passed sombrely this year. The national holiday on 15 November --- mostly seen as a rueful joke at the best of times -- fell on the second day of deadly violence in Gaza. Two weeks later, the United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member state.

Palestine Independence Day, the anniversary of the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, did not usher in an independent state, nor did the General Assembly vote. But neither moment should be seen as empty symbolism.

With the 1988 declaration, Palestinian leaders for the first time recognized the UN partition plan of 1947, implicitly accepting Israel and the two-state solution. Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chose to hold the 2012 General Assembly vote on the 65th anniversary of that partition plan, with the UN campaign as the natural continuation of world efforts for a two-state solution.

This political programme has long fought for survival, and since Abbas launched the effort more than a year ago, he has to work even harder to make it seem relevant to Palestinian aspirations. Skepticism over the purpose of the hamstrung Palestinian Authority -=- set up as an interim government 18 years ago --- was galvanized by an economic crisis, sparking mass protests across the West Bank this fall. Abbas' commitment to a negotiated peace defied logic for those who saw Hamas securing better and faster Israeli concessions -- for example, by releasing captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit last year and battering Israel with rockets last month. Many Palestinians are concerned that Abbas' program will endanger refugees’ right of return, and in the absence of talks, it is hard for him to prove them wrong.

While Abbas --- whose term as Palestinian President formally expired in 2009 -- has the luxury of indefinitely postponed national elections, questions over the relevance of his political strategy must have been uncomfortable. Now, by seeing through the UN bid after it failed at the Security Council last year, Abbas can start pointing to a legacy of sorts.

If he can conclude the fraught reconciliation deal with Hamas, his record will look even brighter. Last month's conflict in Gaza could have been the nail in Abbas’ political coffin, as Hamas earned grudging respect, even from those who despise its internal policies, and Abbas looked even more isolated from the real deal-making. But ironically, just as Abbas' Fatah party and Hamas showcased their opposite strategies of diplomacy and military might, reconciliation is back on the cards. Hamas is referring to the UN bid and military resistance as a potentially coherent national vision --- a prospect seemingly inconceivable just months ago.

The UN won Abbas points for assertiveness, and Hamas is now winning applause for conciliatory gestures to Fatah. Meanwhile, the UN bid bought Abbas some time before he --- and Palestinians who do not have rockets --- become utterly unimportant to an Israeli political system obsessed with Iran and its own pre-election political shenanigans.

Worldwide, Abbas faced the same problem of irrelevance. His regional relationships had been overshadowed by the Arab Spring's boost to Islamist parties, and the appeal of his government and political program to Western countries brought money but no political points. Now, while UN and European endorsement will not give him much leverage with Israel, the prospect -- however unrealistic -- of joining the International Criminal Court could be a rare bargaining chip.

Most importantly, the bid was a chance for the Palestinian leader to show that a large majority will in fact rally around his political programme when the option is pressed. So going to the UN was a no-brainer --- all Abbas had to lose was a stalemate that was increasing his unpopularity at home and marginal position around the world, while giving comfort to Israel.

Will the UN vote become more than symbol, setting in motion a chain of events for substantive political and economic change, just as the Declaration of Independence led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority? Or will this another Palestine Independence Day that looks embarrassing in its optimism in years to come?

The possibilities are still too close to call. But Mahmoud Abbas has won one victory, which defies all Israeli and Western criticism that he has engaged in unnecessary posturing --- he has insisted on his political relevance for another day.

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