RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Abbas looks certain to fail in his bid to win United Nations membership for a Palestinian state, but his move has rekindled admiration for him back home, revealing the defiant side of an often understated man.
The initiative is fiercely opposed by the United States and his decision to forge ahead has thrust the Palestinian issue to the top of the U.N. agenda, challenging the view of critics who accuse him of yielding too swiftly to foreign pressure.
At 76, some observers believe Abbas has his legacy in mind as he nears the end of a career defined by failed efforts to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state in territories captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
“He is starting to develop a public persona different to the prevailing one: that he can challenge even the position of the United States if it does not match Palestinian interests,” said Bassam al-Salehi, secretary general of the Palestinian People’s Party, part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Abbas has been involved in Palestinian politics since the 1950s, part of the generation led by the late Yasser Arafat, whom he replaced as president in 2005.
Whereas Arafat was flamboyant and mercurial, striding the world stage in army fatigues and distinctive keffiyeh headdress, Abbas cuts a low-key figure, opting for suits and ties, and presenting a much more moderate face of Palestinian nationalism.
He was an architect of the Oslo peace accords which helped launch the peace process in the 1990s. But repeated rounds of direct negotiations with various Israeli leaders brokered by Washington have left full statehood as remote a dream as ever.
Palestinians point to the expansion of Jewish settlements on land where they want to found their state as one of the main reasons for that. Israeli officials counter by saying the Palestinians have rejected generous deals down the years.
After the failure of the last round of talks in September 2010, Abbas drew up the new strategy of seeking statehood recognition directly from the United Nations.
“Let me be frank, we are facing a historic and difficult period,” Abbas said in a televised speech to his people last Friday, spelling out his U.N. plan.
“You certainly don’t believe me,” he joked, signaling he was aware of his reputation not to follow through on threats.
Abbas is a refugee from a town in what is now Israel, but his vision for ending the conflict is built around the idea of establishing of an independent Palestine in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem alongside Israel.
His opposition to the use of violence has bordered on outright disdain. That has fed his rivalry with the Hamas Islamist group, which wrestled control of Gaza from him in 2007.
He has described as “futile” the firing of rockets into Israel by militants in Gaza, and the security forces he has built up in the West Bank are trained to cooperate with Israel rather than fight it.
His rise to the presidency was welcomed by the United States and Israel, which accused Arafat of fomenting the violence that raged in the last years of his life. Abbas worked to stop it.
But today, his people are wondering what he has to show for his efforts. Abbas himself has not hidden his disappointment in President Barack Obama, particularly for his failure to convince Israel to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements.
As Obama addressed the United Nations on Wednesday, dismissing the Palestinians’ U.N. quest as a mistaken mission, Abbas on several occasions put his hand to his head and his delegation later poured scorn on the U.S. position.
Palestinians familiar with Abbas say he is still hurt by the fall-out from an early encounter with the Obama administration.
It was widely assumed that he caved into U.S. pressure when in 2009 he approved a U.N. decision to delay action on a report into the 2008-09 Gaza war which was highly critical of Israel.
He later reversed his position, but by then his public image was already in tatters. The experience toughened his resolve.
“He took very unpopular decisions. So he’s saying: ‘What can I give the people?'” said a PLO official, discussing the motivations behind the U.N. statehood bid.
“All of us said, ‘We go to the United Nations’.”
Since the 2009 public relations disaster, Abbas has undoubtedly stiffened his resolve.
He fended off Western pressure to drop his conditions for a resumption of negotiations with Israel, including a complete halt to settlement building.
He also defied U.S. pressure by bringing a resolution to the U.N. Security Council earlier this year condemning the settlements. The United States vetoed the measure.
His newfound stubbornness has boosted his standing in the polls, with a survey this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), showing that 83 percent of Palestinians support the U.N. statehood bid.
“There’s no doubt that Abbas’ popularity has improved,” said PSR director Khalil Shikaki. “(But) the changes are not dramatic. He is not a charismatic leader. People respond to the message rather than the man.”