JERUSALEM – Overshadowed by last week's showdown between the U.S. and North Korea, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued an ominous warning in his address to the United Nations: With hopes running out for an independent Palestinian state, the Palestinian leader said he may have no choice but to seek a single, binational state with Israel.
While Abbas appears to be in no hurry to disband his self-rule government, his threat raises an awkward scenario for Israel and the Trump administration that could potentially spell doom for the century-old Zionist enterprise.
Abbas was a mastermind and negotiator of the historic Oslo peace accords of the 1990s — interim deals that set a five-year goal for reaching a final agreement. Since then, he has remained a vocal supporter of pursuing a negotiated peace agreement that would establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But after nearly a quarter century of failed U.S.-led peace efforts, the 82-year-old Abbas told the world body last Wednesday that time is running out as Israel expands its settlements on occupied lands.
"The two-state solution is today in jeopardy," he said, saying that the Palestinians will have to "look for alternatives" if the door is closed to independence.
"If the two-state solution were to be destroyed due to the creation of a one-state reality with two systems — apartheid," he said, "this would be a failure, and neither you, nor we, will have any other choice but to continue the struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine."
Abbas has issued similar threats before. But the timing and high-profile venue of his speech gave his comments some added urgency. The Palestinians are eagerly waiting for President Donald Trump to present his vision for peace, and are desperately seeking his endorsement of a two-state solution.
"President Abbas sent a direct message to the U.S. administration, saying: Either you save the two-state solution or we are going to end up in one state where our people are going to ask for full rights," said Mohammed Ishtayeh, a top adviser to Abbas.
A White House official said the administration understands the difficulties involved, but remains optimistic and is having "productive conversations with both sides." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — for their future state. The international community, including Trump's predecessors, has long supported the two-state solution, believing that partitioning the land into Israeli and Palestinian states is the best way to ensure peace.
The reasoning is rooted in demographics. Most demographers believe the number of Jews and Arabs in these areas is close to equal. Relinquishing control of territories with several million Palestinians would ensure Israel's future as a democracy with a solid Jewish majority. Continued control over the Palestinians, on the other hand, could force Israel to choose between its Jewish character and remaining a democracy.
With this in mind, Israel withdrew from Gaza, now home to 2 million Palestinians, in 2005. Yet it also has strengthened its grip on the West Bank and east Jerusalem, together home to over 600,000 Israelis and an estimated 2.7 million Palestinians, making any future separation increasingly difficult. Israel has some 1.8 million Arab citizens and 6.5 million Jews, according to its Central Bureau of Statistics.
Israel has annexed east Jerusalem and considers the area, home to sensitive religious sites, an inseparable part of its capital. Although the annexation is not internationally recognized, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to divide the city.
The fate of the West Bank is even more complicated. Israel has established scores of settlements without declaring it to be part of Israel. The result is a complicated reality where Israeli settlers enjoy the protection of the Israeli military and the rights of Israeli citizenship, while Palestinians are subject to a combination of autonomy under Abbas' Palestinian Authority and Israeli military law. Critics, including Abbas, frequently compare this two-tiered system to South African apartheid.
Israeli hard-liners have offered a host of reasons to oppose Palestinian independence. They claim Israel's pre-1967 boundaries would be indefensible, point to past peace proposals rejected by the Palestinians and note the bloody second Palestinian uprising of the early 2000s and Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007. They cite the Jewish biblical connection to the West Bank, say that expanded Palestinian autonomy should be sufficient or claim that Abbas is weak or cannot be trusted.
But they have struggled to provide an answer if the Palestinians give up their aspirations for independence and instead seek equality and Israeli voting rights. Coping with this dilemma, Netanyahu offered conditional support for Palestinian independence upon taking office in 2009. But since Trump's election, Netanyahu has stopped talking about a two-state solution.
Netanyahu's office did not respond to requests for comment on Abbas' speech. His U.N. Ambassador, Danny Danon, last week said Abbas had "spread falsehoods."
"Today's lies and excuses have proven once again that the Palestinian leadership is a serial evader of peace," he said.
It seems unlikely that Abbas will follow through on his warning. The Palestinian president controls a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, tens of thousands of jobs and travels the world with VIP status. His aides admit there are no immediate plans to disband the internationally backed Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian officials say his speech was meant to rouse an international community that has stopped paying attention to them and to remind the world that the alternatives to inaction are worse.
"We told the Americans it's the last chance for the two-state solution," Ishtayeh said.