For 20 years, Abbas led the Palestinian camp that strongly opposed terrorism and favored a negotiated agreement with Israel as the only way to secure an independent state. He did it courageously, against Yasir Arafat and against the Iran-backed Islamist opposition, Hamas. But the events of the last few years have frustrated Abbas's policy.
After the Palestinian leader agreed with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the principles of a final-status agreement -- including the thorny issues of Jerusalem and refugees -- Olmert was forced to resign in the face of corruption accusations (he was later acquitted). After Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded Olmert, he froze settlement expansion in the West Bank for 10 months and accepted the principle of a two-state solution. But the conditions he imposed on the resumption of negotiations made these talk impossible. These conditions, like recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, were never imposed on any Arab country that negotiated with Israel, including Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
Settler groups soon gained influence in Netanyahu's ruling party, and last month he merged his party with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's. Lieberman vocally supports the eviction of Abbas from power, which, if carried out, would effectively hand full control of the West Bank to Hamas and justify occupation forever. Israel's current government is not interested in an agreement that includes territorial concessions in the West Bank and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Abandoned and threatened, what option other than this U.N. bid does Abbas have?
What's more, his initiative is good for Israel. True, it embarrasses those Israelis who prefer continuing the occupation over having a democratic Jewish state with a Jewish majority. But U.N. recognition of Palestine also deters a one-state reality. One state, with an Arab majority, is a prescription for the destruction of Israel and the end of the Jewish dream. Now, with parliamentary elections two months away, Israeli politicians, who have long swept this issue under the rug, will have to come out in favor of either a two-state solution or a one-state non-solution. Furthermore, granting the Palestinians non-member state status at the United Nations does no harm to Israel's security. It will not change Israel's military hold on the West-Bank.
Abbas's statehood bid can be a game-changer if the American and Israeli governments respond prudently. Or it can be another missed opportunity -- and a potentially disastrous one at that -- if they respond punitively to a remarkable Palestinian achievement at the U.N. General Assembly. Each stakeholder in this conflict will have to decide very soon on which side of history they stand.