Abbas and His Missing People at the Edge of Chaos

With passion and eloquence, holding his outrage in check and exhorting the nations of the world if they have “a shred of conscience” to support Palestinian statehood, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, submitted an application to the U.N. Security Council on September 23 for full membership in the United Nations.

In a speech to the General Assembly marked by frequent applause, Abbas urged quick approval of full nation status so that “the missing people” could join the alliance of nations “free in a sovereign and independent homeland.” Reminding those assembled that the Israeli Occupation of Palestine was continuing to bring pain and suffering to his people, he stated firmly that “the time has come for the Palestinian Spring,” a resumption of “normal lives,” where children could be assured of returning home from school, and where parents could sleep peacefully at night without fear of Israeli army raids.

In frantic last-minute meetings behind the scenes at the U.N. the Americans and some European diplomats tried to stop Abbas from presenting his submission, worried about destabilizing further the possibility for a negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine. Acknowledging the push to re-open perennially failed negotiations, Abbas suggested strongly that recognition of the Palestinian state would enhance, not hold back, a renewed peace process. The application to the Security Council will take long months of work before possible acceptance, and most diplomats agree that in the wake of the request for statehood negotiations will be fresh and lively during this period.

So why the intransigent position of the U.S.? The administration’s veto in the Security Council is good domestic politics, even if unprincipled international policy. President Obama’s team no doubt has seen the latest non-partisan Pew Research Center’s poll on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Sadly, Americans don’t know much about the issue. “In the new poll” reports Pew, fully 51% of respondents say they’ve heard ‘nothing at all’ about the planned United Nations debate over the Palestinian Authority’s statehood status. In the September interviews, only 10 % said they’ve heard a lot about it.” American Jews and a few others pay attention to this issue, and more than 50% are against Palestinian statehood. So the President gets a pass on his U.N. veto, playing it safe with Jewish voters.

Negotiations are difficult in the best of circumstances and generally fail when there is what experts call “asymmetric power”, a power imbalance at the negotiating table. The Israeli Occupation, paid for with billions of dollars in American and European aid to Israel, along with the historic failure of past negotiations, has kept the Palestinians in an impossible bargaining position, unable to accept what has mythically been sold to the public as golden opportunities for peace. Requesting full recognition as a Palestinian state is a strategy that immediately redresses some of the imbalance present in prior diplomacy. When “the missing people” are welcomed as full partners with enhanced status at the negotiating table, there might be a much better chance for a peaceful resolution of this most intractable of global conflicts.

We are at “the edge of chaos” in our relations with the Arab world. The good news is that this metaphor, used by scientists applying the new science of Complexity to global affairs, describes conditions more ripe for breakthrough than ever before. In that space between chaos and order, while some feel nothing can be done, everything is possible. Complexity scientists also tell us that like all natural systems, social systems need diversity to survive, and human beings need diversity to solve hard problems. With Abbas’s bold and courageous move, Palestinians will no longer be “the missing people” at the bargaining table. Instead, they will be newly empowered with status that signals balance and a renewed chance for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Merle Lefkoff, Ph.D. is President of Ars Publica, applying the science of Complexity to the art of diplomacy.