Empty gestures from Abbas

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Abbas Momani, Pool)

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has twice balked at a final peace settlement with Israel that would give his government a nation. He thinks he can get a better deal if the United Nations Security Council or the International Criminal Court leans on Israel, but the odds are stacked against him.

Meanwhile, his people languish from the lack of economic benefits they would get with a peace deal. The question is, what is holding him back from reaching an agreement with Israel on his own?

Last week Abbas lost a vote in the U.N. Security Council on a plan demanding a settlement with Israel on terms set by the panel. He may soon try again with a better chance of getting a majority since a change in Security Council membership is bringing in nations sympathetic to his cause. But the United States can still veto the plan, and should.

Abbas has a better but still risky chance of getting some leverage from his decision to join the International Criminal Court, a move that will allow him to bring a suit this year against Israel for its settlements on the West Bank and its policies in East Jerusalem. Even the United States and the European Union, both friends of Israel and supporters of Abbas, do not recognize the legitimacy of the settlements.

But even if Abbas won a judgment against Israel, neither he nor the court would have any way of enforcing it, so it would be a largely symbolic gesture. At the same time, it would be likely to trigger a reaction in the U.S. Congress against American aid to the Palestinian Authority. The modest prosperity of the West Bank is due almost entirely to aid from the United States and the European Union. Such a move by Abbas could therefore be a costly error on his part.

The only sensible course for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority to follow is to reach a political settlement with Israel that would open doors to a better life for the Palestinian people.

The old Ottoman province of Palestine has over 12 million inhabitants, about equally divided between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, with a few religious minorities. The Jews are united in the nation of Israel, but the Palestinians are divided.

About 1.7 million Palestinians live and vote in Israel. Their economic status is less prosperous than the Jewish average, but they are better off than the 2.2 million Palestinians who live on the West Bank, and much better off than the 1.8 million Palestinians crowded into the urban slum that is the Gaza Strip, where unemployment hovers at near half of the work force.

It is a fair guess that what has been holding Abbas and his negotiators back from taking the many offers that Israel has put on the table, especially in 2008, is fear of violence from groups like Hamas. Over the past couple of decades these radical groups have been fostered, supported and armed by Iran working through Syria. Their pressure has kept moderate Palestinians from reaching agreements with Israel. That leaves the moderates with nothing but empty and potentially self-defeating gestures to show that they, too, despise Israel. The result, for ordinary Palestinians, is a continued tragedy.