Against a backdrop of ongoing Israeli settlement-building on Palestinian land, and a Trump administration that is pushing a peace plan that hurts Palestinian interests, Abbas won a rare bright moment in the global spotlight.
Abbas led a delegation from Ramallah to United Nations headquarters on Tuesday for a ceremony to mark a shiny new Palestinian achievement – assuming the chairmanship of a UN bloc of some 130 mostly developing nations.
It is not the biggest job on the world stage, but Palestinian diplomats will now play a useful role on such global issues as climate change and migration, working alongside heavyweights like China, Brazil and Indonesia.
It was the first time anything other than a full UN member state had won the privilege. The honour that was conferred by the UN General Assembly last year, despite objections from Israel and the United States.
Speaking with Gli Occhi della Guerra and other journalists afterwards, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said the diplomatic push did not end there. The Palestinians would launch a bid for full UN membership within weeks, he said.
While Palestine had its status at the UN upped to “non-member state” in 2012, it has long discussed another upgrade to full membership which, officials say, would merely reinforce the two-state solution that Palestinians and Israelis have been negotiating for years.
But securing full UN membership has a higher bar. The Palestinians would need nine votes in favour of the upgrade in the Security Council and no vetoes from one of its permanent members – which include Israel’s closest ally, the US.
On Friday, Palestinian hopes came crashing back down to earth.
In uncharacteristically blunt language, the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres questioned aloud why Abbas would even bother going to the UN’s top table when a veto from the Trump administration was a near certainty.
“We know what the result would be,” Guterres told reporters.
It was doubtless true, and rather obvious to all the journalists in the room. But nevertheless, those words could have only injected gloom into the conference rooms were Abbas, Maliki and other Palestinian officials hatch their plans.
These are dark days for Palestinian officials. Israeli politicians are increasingly hawkish, some openly reject the goal of an independent Palestinian state. They act under the cover of US President Donald Trump, who appears to have their backs.
In two years in the West Wing, Trump has shifted the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem over Palestinian objections. Funding to Palestinians was cut, and a peace plan that may be released after Israeli elections on April 9 could well be woefully short on sweeteners for Palestinians.
All the while, Ramallah’s friends in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are more focussed on Iran’s regional ambitions than they are on a seven decade-old territorial dispute with Israel, which is equally wary of Tehran.
Last time the Palestinians pushed for full UN membership in 2014 they could not get enough votes. This time, Israel’s UN ambassador Danny Danon vowed to work behind the scenes and “stop the initiative” in its tracks.
Abbas’s real problem, however, is not in New York, Riyadh or Washington. It is at home. The Palestinians are weakened by the gulf between Abbas’ party, Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamists who run Gaza.
Abbas’ term expired in 2010, he has governed unelected since then. About two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign, frustrated with graft, perceived cooperation with Israel and at how little the 83-year-old has to show for for 14 years at the helm.
These concerns were raised by Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian negotiator, when she spoke with Gli Occhi della Guerra about Abbas, his visit to New York and his effort to get the word “Palestine” lit up on desks at UN parleys.
By grandstanding at the UN, Abbas may boost his flagging poll ratings, but his diplomatic wins are really just “cosmetic”, she said. They make Palestine look like a state, without actually being a state.
Buttu likens the push for full UN membership to the Palestinian postal service, which was set up in 1994 thanks to the Oslo Accords with Israel. Palestinian stamps are “really pretty” and stoke feelings of national pride, she said.
“The question is, will the letter ever arrive at its destination? The answer is no, because Israel owns the post office and controls the movement of post,” Buttu told Gli Occhi della Guerra. “Yes, we have a post office now, but the letters will never arrive.”