Abbas Needs An Exit Ramp From the UN

By Steven L. Spiegel, Danielle Spiegel-Feld, and David Andrew Weinberg

The Middle East is boiling over with crises. We've had the missile conflict between Hamas and Israel. We're in the midst of the quintessential post Arab Spring domestic conflict over how much power President Morsi of Egypt should have, even in the short-term. And now... get ready for the latest diplomatic crisis between the Israelis and the West Bank Palestinian leadership, which could, if handled poorly, result in catastrophic developments. This week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas plans to ask the United Nations General Assembly to vote on upgrading the Palestinians' status at the UN to "non-member state permanent observer."

With violence between Hamas and Israel only just subsiding it seems almost unfair for the United States to have to reengage diplomatically in another Mideast confrontation. However, should Abbas' motion pass it would be bad for American interests, bad for the Palestinians, bad for Israel, and bad for peace.

As sympathetic as we are to Palestinian statehood aspirations, we believe that this bid, brought now, will only set the peace process back further. The most tangible direct consequence of putting the word "state" behind Palestine's title is the potential it brings for Palestine to challenge Israel at the International Criminal Court instead of resolving their differences through negotiation.

True, Abbas has promised to resume talks with Israel after the UN upgrade. However, opening up a pathway to the ICC would make moderate Palestinian leaders less inclined to bridge remaining gaps between them and the Israelis by reducing incentives to reach a negotiated solution. The vote could also encourage additional boycotts of Israel and facilitate other anti-Israel activity at the UN, which tends to increase Israeli feelings of isolation and unwillingness to compromise.

Further, regardless of how the U.S. administration or our European allies decide to react, the U.S. Congress will likely respond by withdrawing funding earmarked for development assistance and other PA functions. Thus, although a win at the UN might gain Abbas a victory, it could very well undermine the fiscal stability of an already weakened Palestinian Authority.

Perhaps worst of all, approving the measure now may seem to reward violence by suggesting that progress for Palestinian aspirations comes only after violence by Hamas. It would be like withdrawal from Gaza all over again, when Israeli concessions were widely perceived as a victory for Hamas rather than the result of moderation.

If these are the stakes, then what is the solution? Even if some might find Abbas' conduct a frustrating diversion from negotiations, cutting of U.S. funds entirely might topple the Palestinian Authority, inviting Hamas to take its place. As such, the threat of U.S. sanctions by the executive branch in addition to Congress is wholly unwise.

Instead, the best tools are inducements: economic incentives and diplomatic signals of engagement. Although saying yes at the UN -- or even turning a blind eye -- is not a viable option, we need to give Abbas a feasible exit ramp. And it needs to be compelling enough to remind the Palestinian street that his path, the path of non-violence, pays greater dividends than Hamas's.

One possibility would be to work with Israel to craft serious economic incentives to drop or modify the bid. For instance, Israel could offer to expand trade flows in and out of the West Bank or to revise the Paris economic protocol that governs economic relations between Israel and the PA to grant Salam Fayyad's Palestinian economic team greater control over internal economic management. Both would be welcome steps and would track Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's previous statements of support for Palestinian economic growth as a pathway to peace. America can play a key role in negotiating such an economic package between the parties, either in public or in private.

Perhaps more importantly, the United States can signal that non-violence reaps rewards by significantly reengaging in the peace process. One way would be to upgrade U.S. envoy David Hale to the status of a presidential envoy with greater authority to craft an agenda and bring the parties together. Alternatively, Senator John McCain's recent suggestion that Bill Clinton be appointed to negotiate between the parties deserves serious consideration.

Finally, given that the main problem we see with the Palestinians' latest membership bid is the threat of drawing in the ICC, the administration should consider ways of tempering the threat of ICC actions to make the bid less disruptive. For instance, President Obama could link economic and diplomatic inducements in a possible agreement to Congressional language that would automatically trigger dramatic and irrevocable sanctions if Palestine does go to the ICC. By visibly tying his hands on the matter, the president could make credible threats that help contain the risk the bid poses without immediately weakening the already teetering PA.

The recent Gaza War puts the stakes into sharp focus. Coming down too hard on Abbas could be seen as validating Hamas's narrative that only violence can elicit concessions from Israel and the West. However, if we do not provide Abbas with a speedy exit ramp that offers his people a promising path forward, then Hamas will have already won.

Steven L. Spiegel is Professor of Political Science at UCLA. Danielle Spiegel-Feld is a Senior Associate with Israel Policy Forum. David Andrew Weinberg serves as a Non-Resident Fellow with the UCLA Center for Middle East Development.