The overwhelming international support for the bid to upgrade the status of Palestine at the General Assembly of the United Nations late last month was a sweet reward for President Mahmoud Abbas and his faction Fateh. They had just experienced a bruising in public opinion due to Israel’s assault on Gaza, after which rival Hamas came out looking strong and defiant.Moreover, the move to request the upgrade was one of the rare occasions in which the Palestinian people were not divided. While some were more cynical than others about its outcome, few denied that this was a great opportunity for the Palestinian people to enjoy the support of the international community.The new status of Palestine at the United Nations, combined with the (albeit relative and temporary) improvement in his public standing provides President Abbas with the opportunity to get himself off the hook. Abbas can and should call the bluff of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by--as soon as possible--calling on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and key members of the international community to initiate direct, unconditional bilateral negotiations between the state of Israel and the state of Palestine to solve their differences over borders and refugees on the basis of international law and relevant UN resolutions.This will put the Palestinian side on high diplomatic, political and public relations ground. It will also balance out Israel’s relatively successful Israeli diplomatic and public relations strategy that seeks to demonize Abbas and claims there is no Palestinian partner. Needless to say, this should not only be a media gimmick or spin, but a genuine initiative. Starting state-to-state negotiations upon the initiative of the United Nations on the basis of international law will zero in on Israel’s settlement policy and bring more pressure to bear.The vast majority of the involved members of the international community, including those who voted for or abstained in last week’s General Assembly vote, are repeatedly urging the Palestine Liberation Organization to resume negotiations with Israel. And, in spite of growing criticisms worldwide of the Israeli settlement expansion policy, very few seem convinced that negotiations should be linked to settlement policy. It is no secret that most of the international diplomats visiting the occupied Palestinian territory have been urging Palestinians to resume the talks. After the recent international victory and the boost in his public stand, President Abbas has two possible paths. Either he invests this short-term international and domestic capital in internal politics, particularly reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh, or in the peace process and in international diplomacy. He cannot do both at the same time--pursuing the peace process will discourage Hamas, which has different interests, from coming to the table.For reasons that have mostly to do with Hamas, the pursuit of reconciliation right now is hopeless. Hamas has more reason to maintain the status quo than it does to implement reconciliation. It believes that changes in the Arab world mean that time is on its side. In addition, its leaders believe that as long as Israel is in control, reconciliation will not provide them with any gains in the West Bank. Looking at the Palestinian cause as a whole, Palestinians are the weaker party to the conflict, forced by circumstance to lay down arms and pursue a diplomatic solution based on international legality. As such, the continued amassing of international support, whether it be diplomatic or popular, is imperative. President Abbas should heed this reality, and use the strength that he has gained to further shore up his good will among the international partners that wield an important role in fulfilling the Palestinian vision--a resolution of the conflict based in international law that produces two neighboring states.
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