Following Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas’s confirmation that the Palestinian Authority will present its bid for upgraded status at the U.N. on Nov. 29, an Israeli Foreign Ministry policy paper has proposed “toppling” his “regime” if the bid is approved.
In addition, Israel’s Channel 10 reported Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as saying: “If they persist with this project, I will ensure that the Palestinian Authority collapses.” Lieberman has previously described Abbas as an “obstacle that needs to be removed.” It is a curious, self-defeating move, because it should actually embolden Abbas to press ahead - whether the threat is empty or real, it is a win-win situation for him.
If there is no Israeli follow-through, Abbas would achieve a double victory: calling Israel’s bluff, and having the U.N. upgrade Palestine from “permanent observer” to a “non-member observer state” - widely accepted as a foregone conclusion given pro-Palestinian sympathy in the General Assembly, in which the United States has no veto.
This would bolster his waning popularity and, to an extent, make up for last year’s failed bid for full U.N. membership, which required Security Council endorsement and triggered the threat of a U.S. veto.
I doubt that the policy paper will be implemented. It acknowledges that Israel would face consequences, and I think it is aware that it would be too big a price to pay. Even its allies would not support the removal of a democratically elected leader who is recognised internationally as a moderate. Indeed, Israel must be aware that there is no alternative who would be as amenable.
Violence would flare up across the West Bank, possibly leading to another intifada (uprising). “Chaos in the West Bank is hardly in Israel’s interests,” says BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus. This is particularly true given the current onslaught against Gaza.
Opening a second, larger front would be far more complicated and dangerous, militarily as well as politically, domestically as well regionally and internationally. It would further push a Middle East that is already teetering on the edge, and more hostile towards Israel, which has lost its allies in Egypt and Turkey, is war-mongering against Iran, and is neighbours with an increasingly volatile Syria and Lebanon.
While taking on a relatively isolated Hamas is one thing, going after the PA - which enjoys worldwide recognition and support, and in which Israel’s main allies (the U.S. and European states) are heavily invested - is quite another.
It would be near impossible to justify wiping out the entire mainstream Palestinian polity to the international community, not least when a French / Swiss probe is about to be carried out into whether Abbas’s predecessor Yasser Arafat was murdered by Israel.
The PA’s security forces “have operated reasonably effectively to clamp down on militant groups,” says Marcus. In other words, it has been doing Israel’s dirty work. Why would Israel want to end such a convenient arrangement? In fact, toppling the PA would almost certainly unite Palestinian factions, whose divisions have benefitted Israel greatly.
Furthermore, dismantling the PA would mean filling its large administrative shoes, something most Israelis would oppose because the existence and functioning of the PA has meant easing the burden of occupation for Israel. As the PA is by far the biggest employer of Palestinians in the occupied territories, the last thing Israel would want is a large number of unemployed, angry Palestinians with nothing left to lose.
Abbas wins even if Israel carries out its threat. Deposing him would make him a national hero, a far cry from his present status as an increasingly unpopular leader who has presided over years of political and economic deterioration, and subsequently, an increasingly discontented and vocal population.
If he was besieged by Israel, he might be spoken of as another Arafat; if he was imprisoned, he could become another Marwan Barghouti; and if he was killed, he would become a martyr. None of these scenarios would not stop the U.N. bid.
Abbas should be encouraged by what seems to be an act of desperation by Israel. Its U.N. ambassador Ron Prosor has said that the “false idol of virtual statehood will change nothing on the ground,” but Israel’s harsh and vocal reactions contradict this sentiment, and this latest threat seems to suggest that the furious lobbying by its ambassadors worldwide is failing.
Why the frantic behaviour? Because the upgraded status would permit Palestinians to take part in General Assembly debates, and more importantly, improve their chances of joining U.N. agencies and the International Criminal Court. If they are able to sign the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, this would allow legal action in the court to challenge Israel’s occupation.
Israel has manoeuvred itself into a corner. If Abbas has so far defied immense U.S. pressure, it is unlikely that Israeli pressure would be any less futile. While Abbas benefits from pushing ahead with the U.N. bid, he does not really have a choice: to back down at this stage, after last year’s failure and recent vows to remain steadfast, could be political suicide resulting in his ouster...by his own people.
Sharif Nashashibi is a London based writer and Arab commentator. @sharifnash