On the Brink, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Hangs Tough on Statehood

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Majdi Mohammed / AP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the West Bank, on Sept. 6, 2011

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, negotiates for a living. And while there have been no talks with Israel for a solid year now, the snowy-haired chain-smoker is very much in his element this month, navigating the narrowing space between his longtime sponsor, the U.S., and a Palestinian ambition for a state that aims for validation at the U.N. despite Washington's mounting warnings to not even try. "I heard from the Americans," Abbas reports. "They said, 'If you will have your state, you will go to the ICC. We don't want you to go the ICC.'"

The ICC is the International Criminal Court, where a Palestinian state would have standing to ask for Israel to be charged with war crimes, perhaps even for building the controversial settlements. '"If you get your state," Abbas goes on, still quoting American officials, "'you will enter into military alliances.' With whom?" he asks, eyebrows arched, amused. "It is a joke."

Only not the funny kind. Washington sends a half-billion dollars a year to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which Abbas heads, and prominent members of Congress have threatened to cut off aid entirely if the bid for statehood proceeds. In a Thursday night meeting, Abbas concedes to a gathering of foreign reporters that he needs the money — "Of course it's a problem!" — but adds that it's not as if coming up short would be anything new. PA coffers are already empty as Middle Eastern states preoccupied with the Arab Spring lag on promised contributions. "Now we don't have money to pay salaries now," Abbas says. "And we will pay, I think this month, half salary. So before we go [to the U.N.] we don't have money."

Of more lasting concern is the risk to relations with Washington, which remains the ultimate broker in negotiating any Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands occupied since 1967. In an internal PA document laying out pros and cons of the U.N. bid for the Palestinian leadership, No. 1 on the down side is "serious damage" to relations with the Obama Administration. U.S. diplomats have made clear Obama will continue to protect Israel at the U.N. by vetoing a Palestinian application before the Security Council, where applications for full membership must begin.

"They talked about some sort of confrontation," Abbas says of the meetings with American officials. "We told them we don't want any confrontation either with the Americans or with anyone else." A head-on confrontation could be avoided if Palestinians steered clear of the Security Council, as experts on international law say it can. Only a majority vote in the General Assembly would be necessary for Palestine to be named an "observer state," or otherwise be invited to many of the privileges of a state. Chief among these, Abbas makes clear, is the right to bring charges against Israel at the ICC. "When you see the settlers every day attacking the Palestinians, burning mosques, killing people, cutting trees here and there, who will prevent them from doing so?" Abbas asks. "We complain every day — every day — to the Israeli government. Nobody listens to us. Nobody."

Still, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, says he has no plans to circumvent the Security Council and the U.S. veto waiting there. The decision might be revisited if European powers — the last great undecided bloc — recommend the General Assembly route. But Abbas says Washington has made clear its displeasure with either option, so at this point, the thinking is to go for broke. Summoning a bit of the stirring sweep on display in his opinion piece in the New York Times heralding the U.N. bid, Abbas says: "Let us express our ideas, our hope. We are a people without hope now."

Courtly and amiable as he speaks in the office made for Yasser Arafat, whose tomb stands just outside, Abbas remains the Palestinians' man of peace. A dove flutters on his shoulder in a giant photo adorning the hallway, and he insists he will happily resume negotiations with Israel after returning from New York City. Negotiations, he says, truly are the only way to regain the land from Israeli troops. But Abbas says to expect no last-minute formula to resume talks on the eve of the U.N. annual confab, even though the four powers (the E.U., the U.N., Russia and the U.S.) known as the Quartet are "cooking something." "To be frank with you, they came too late," he sighs. "They wasted all the time from the beginning of this year. Now when they come here to tell us we have this idea, or this package, and don't go to the United Nations, we will not accept."

The annual gathering of the General Assembly opens the floor to motions on Sept. 21. Abbas and the Palestinian delegation leave for New York City on the 19th. The formal application for statehood on the 1967 borders will be presented to the Security Council on the 22nd or 23rd. The Palestinian President says the precise date has yet to be decided. Likewise — from the tangle of interests, alliances, diplomacy and, not least, brinksmanship — the precise way forward. "This is the beginning," Abbas says. "The steps that come later we will see later. At the United Nations."