What could Mahmoud Abbas be thinking? The soft-spoken Palestinian Authority president, now in his seventh year in office, has never been known for the kind of political brinksmanship that characterized the rule of his predecessor, PLO leader Yassir Arafat. And yet, recent months have seen Abbas's government make a pair of deeply provocative moves, with potentially catastrophic consequences for Palestinian prosperity, as well as for prospects of a lasting peace with Israel.
The first was its plan, floated in earnest this spring by a number of Palestinian Authority officials, to forge ahead with a unilateral declaration of statehood this fall. Now, the idea of a Palestinian state is neither new nor controversial; indeed, a "two-state solution" is the logical terminus of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process begun in Oslo, Norway in 1993. But the belief that such a political reality can be created unilaterally is both. It undermines the long-running dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and the role of the United States as its facilitator. It also calls into question the fate of a series of so-called "final-status" issues (like final borders, sovereignty over Jerusalem, water rights and the Palestinian "right of return") that require bilateral consensus in order to be truly settled.
That Abbas's government has chosen to pursue such an option, therefore, seems more the product of frustration than of long-term strategy. The Palestinian Authority chairman said as much in a recent interview with Newsweek, in which he griped about a lack of support from Washington for his efforts to erect a Palestinian state. The resulting logic is clear: if statehood is too difficult to attain via drawn-out negotiations, it might be accomplished by simply making it a fait accompli.
But betting a Palestinian state can be created in this fashion is an exceedingly risky gamble. The idea is bound to get a sympathetic hearing at the United Nations General Assembly, where the so-called "Arab bloc" of the Palestinian Authority's Middle Eastern allies has a considerable voice, when it convenes this September. But it is highly unlikely to pass muster with the Security Council, the UN's highest authority. That is because the United States, which holds a permanent seat on the Security Council and wields veto power over any resolution presented before it, has already made clear that it believes statehood must come about as a product of bilateral agreement rather than unilateral decree. And without Washington's endorsement and support, substantive Palestinian statehood will be slow in coming.
If, indeed, it comes at all. The current political conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip dramatically reduce the possibility that the international community might see the creation of a Palestinian state as anything resembling a good idea. In late April, Abbas's ruling Fatah faction unexpectedly signed a "unity" deal with Hamas, the Palestinian Authority's main Islamist movement, bringing the latter into the political fold and making it a key partner in future governance. While working out the kinks of this arrangement has proven harder than originally envisioned, it is already clear that the marriage of convenience between the secular PLO and its radical religious opposition will have potentially catastrophic consequences.
For one thing, it makes the idea of renewed negotiations with Israel—the real path to a two-state solution—a virtual non-starter. While his government remains willing to make far-reaching concessions in pursuit of peace, Israel simply "will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear in his May address to Congress.
For another, it is bound to complicate the international support so crucial for Palestinian legitimacy. In his back-to-back speeches on Mideast policy this spring, President Obama used his considerable powers of persuasion to urge a re-start of the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the stubborn reality that at least one part of the new, hybrid Palestinian government is committed to Israel's destruction is sure to frustrate those plans. So will Congress, where lawmakers from both political parties have condemned the Hamas-Fatah merger and threatened to cut off American aid to Abbas's government if it doesn't break with its new political partner. Even Europe, which historically has waxed sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, is likely to remain divided over support for Palestinian statehood absent serious revisions to the "unity" government.
None of which necessarily means that Abbas and company will back away from their bid to unilaterally establish "Palestine," or their ill-conceived partnership with Hamas. But it does make the prospects for real, lasting prosperity for the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip more distant than ever. For that, the Palestinians have only their leaders to blame.