Taken at face value, Mahmoud Abbas’ speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Friday might legitimately be labelled “historic.” Abbas more or less buried the “peace process” that the United States has been leading for the past two decades and charted a brand new diplomatic course for the Palestinians, one of confrontation rather than conciliation, in international forums instead of U.S.-mediated bilateral negotiations. The Israeli government and its right wing adherents may be huffing and puffing in public over Abbas’ change of direction, but privately they are filled with joy: Abbas just gave them an invaluable political gift, just in time for the Jewish new year.
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Contrary to the positive speech that he delivered earlier this week to American students at New York’s Cooper Union College, Abbas’ target audience now wasn’t in New York or Washington but in Gaza and Ramallah. Abbas was not appealing to supporters of the peace process in Western public opinion, as he has in the past, but to the Palestinians’ "base" of core supporters in the Arab, Muslim and Third worlds, as well as Europe. He tried to shed his popular image as a Obama and Kerry’s poodle and to recast himself as bulldog who can be just as fierce as Ismail Haniyeh or Khaled Mashaal.
Abbas’ speech undoubtedly reflects pent-up Palestinian rage in the wake of the carnage in Gaza, as well as his own conviction that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wasn’t, isn’t and will never be a partner for peace negotiations anyway.
But his address is also a product of his own frustration: the barbarians of Islamic State, as he described them at Cooper Union, have upstaged him and stolen his thunder.
Instead of taking to the world stage at the General Assembly as a main protagonist riding the waves of sympathy generated by Gaza, Abbas found himself relegated to the sidelines, clamoring for attention. He sought to refocus the world on the Palestinian issue by ratcheting up his rhetoric and threatening to quit the game altogether: at his age, he probably told himself, he hasn’t got much to lose.
Abbas quarreled with the assertion made by Obama 24 hours earlier, from the same podium, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not “the main source of problems in the area”. In order to deal with the likes of ISIL, as Abbas termed the jihadist Islamic State group, using the acronym favored by the administration, one has to bring an end to the occupation, which is a form of “state terrorism and a breeding ground for incitement, tension and hatred”, the Palestinian president said.
In practical terms, Abbas may not have gone as far as some of his Palestinian listeners would have liked: he did not specify a target date for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories, nor did he threaten to dismantle the Palestinian Authority altogether. But what he lacked in specific steps Abbas more than made up for with harsh and bellicose words, taken from the classic lexicon of habitual Israel-haters: racism and war crimes, apartheid and genocide. Like many an Israeli politician, Abbas preferred to play to the resentment and hatred of his audience at home rather than employ the kind of moderate tones that would have earned him accolades in the international arena.
Abbas said that, together with Arab nations, he would demand that the Security Council adopt a “specific timeframe” for the implementation of the main elements of the Arab Peace Initiative: withdrawal to the '67 borders, East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, return of refugees based on UN resolution 194. Kerry has already told Abbas that Washington would veto such a proposal, but Abbas knows that the administration would prefer not to isolate itself internationally in support of Israel, especially at a delicate time when it is relying on moderate Arab regimes in the fight against Islamic State. Perhaps he believes that he will be able to extract significant concessions from the Americans in exchange for softening or postponing his proposed moves.
Whether he’s right or wrong, Abbas has certainly made Netanyahu’s own life easier: the Palestinian leader’s speech gives Netanyahu plenty of fodder for an equally strident General Assembly rejoinder on Monday and allows him to comfortably skip the Palestinian chapter in his own meeting with Barack Obama on Wednesday.
Caught in the middle, as usual, are the dwindling ranks of Israeli moderates and other supporters of a negotiated two state solution: after Netanyahu nixed the idea of a withdrawal from the West Bank and declared the Arab Peace Initiative obsolete, along comes Abbas and drives what could turn out to be the final nail in what has come to be known as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The one-state alternative, if it can be called that, has never seemed closer.