The Stateless Statesman

Despite criticism from every quarter, Mahmoud Abbas' slow, nonviolent campaign for Palestinian statehood just might be working

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Joachim Ladefoged for TIME

A year ago, he came home a hero.

But that was a year ago.

Then, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian National Authority President, stood at the green marble rostrum of the U.N. General Assembly and asked for something he knew he could not get--full membership in the U.N. for a country, Palestine, that did not yet exist--and the room went wild.

A year later, on Sept. 27, Abbas stood in the same place and asked for something he can quite easily get--not full membership but a status packing similar legal power. Yet in downtown Ramallah, the West Bank city where trucks mounted with loudspeakers implored Palestinians to gather in the central square to watch, it was hard to find a television tuned in. "I thought it sounded just like the speech he gave last year, with the exception that no one cares this time," says a 38-year-old electrician named Abu Jala. Abu Jala is speaking on a street that 12 months earlier had been choked with people cheering Abbas so lustily that, for the first time, the unassuming antipolitician began to resemble a popular leader. But that moment is long gone, lost in the cloud of resentful disappointment that has descended on the Palestinians and further obscured the enigmatic man who reluctantly leads them.

Uncomfortable with crowds, more at home with books than with constituents, Abu Mazen, as Abbas is widely known, is that rare elected leader who does not want popularity. Which is convenient, because lately he hasn't enjoyed much at all. In the long, trying year since he asked the U.N. for statehood, the Palestinian cause, once central to any discussion of the future shape of the Middle East, has been overtaken by events in Syria, Egypt and Iran, overwhelmed by the iron alliance of Washington and Israel and haunted by a misquoted clich: "The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

The dismaying truth for Palestinians is that Abbas could have seized the moment last year to ask for the U.N. status--to have Palestine recognized as a nonmember state--that he has only just now requested. That's a lost year for a people who are less patient than their leader, a man of almost inertial calm.

Eight years after being elected, Abu Mazen is no closer to delivering on the central promise of his campaign: ending the 45-year Israeli occupation through negotiations. And so he went to the U.N. in September in search of something to shake things up--a measure of legal and moral leverage. Experts on international law say that because the designation "nonmember observer state" contains the word state, the new status would offer the Palestinians the potential power to ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate war crimes on Palestinian territory, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

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