September 18, 2011 4:48 pm

UN speech set to mark turning point for Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas will stand before the UN on Friday to deliver one of the most important speeches of his political life. After weeks of deliberation, and despite fierce pressure from the US and Israel, he will urge the global body to accept Palestine as an independent state and grant his nation full membership.

The speech is likely to mark a turning point both for Mr Abbas and the national movement that he has fed for seven years.

The UN bid represents a decisive change in strategy for the Palestinians, after years of largely fruitless peace talks with the Israeli leadership.

or Mr Abbas personally, it offers the chance to bury the failures of the past and lay the ground for a political legacy that may yet eclipse that of his predecessor, Yassir Arafat.

Western diplomats and Palestinian officials agree that the outcome of the UN bid remains uncertain. In one important way, however, it has already proved a remarkable success: after years of diplomatic neglect, the issue of Palestinian statehood is once again at the top of the international agenda.

“He has, almost single-handedly, managed to get the entire world to talk about the Palestinian issue once again,” a senior European diplomat says of Mr Abbas.

Once universally derided as weak and ineffectual, Mr Abbas has used the UN campaign to win new respect. Some Palestinians now wonder openly whether the Palestinian Authority president, despite his conciliatory manner and lack of charisma, will eventually succeed where Mr Arafat failed.

“They always said he was weak and not like Arafat. But now people are saying he is more dangerous than Arafat but without fighting and in a peaceful way,” says Bassam Taha, a Ramallah-based activist with the Fatah party, the political home of both Mr Abbas and Mr Arafat.

Mr Abbas’s reputation for dithering and weakness was the result of years of political drift: more than any other Palestinian leader, he was associated with the failure of the peace process. But his image also suffered from a widespread view that his PA was too accommodating to the wishes of Israel and the US, for example by cracking down remorselessly on Islamist activists in the West Bank.

Perhaps the lowest moment in Mr Abbas’s career came in June 2007, when the Islamist Hamas group ousted the PA from the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian national movement has since been starkly divided between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fatah – damaging the Palestinian leader’s authority.

Mr Abbas has worked hard, however, to restore at least some of that political and personal authority. Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal in April that promises presidential elections within a year and a new government to rule both Gaza and the West Bank. The agreement remains on hold for the time being, though Palestinian officials have vowed to redouble their reconciliation effort after the UN vote. Mr Abbas also dealt swiftly and ruthlessly with an outbreak of dissent within his Fatah party this year. There is, party watchers say, no rival in sight for the leadership.

“Abbas is starting to be seen in a different way,” says Jamil Rabah, the director of Near East Consulting, a polling organisation. “There is a new level of respect for him – and he knows that there is no one there to replace him.”

At the same time, some western diplomats wonder whether Mr Abbas knows what he has let himself in for – and whether he understands just how existential the threat to his PA is. The fear is that both the US and Israel will follow through on their threats to cut off all financial transfers to the PA as a punishment for the UN move. The PA, which according to the World Bank is already heading for an “acute fiscal crisis”, could then collapse within months.

But Mr Abbas reportedly feels that time is running out. “He has a real sense of urgency,” observes one senior western negotiator. “This could be the last chance not just for Palestinian politics to deliver something – but also for his brand of Palestinian politics.”

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