Abbas' UN Speech Gives West Another Chance to Pressure Israel

The Palestinian president's remarks belay an attempt to amend the bad impressions recently made upon his people, yet lack a pointed message about what to do if Abbas' demands are rejected.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly, September 26, 2014.
Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly, September 26, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The words and phrases selected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (or his speechwriters) for his United Nations General Assembly speech on Friday made one thing perfectly clear: The Palestinian President has given up on the Israeli public as his audience. Packaged inside words such as "colonialist occupation," "racism," "a war of genocide" undertaken by Israel, massacres, a nation above the law and so forth, it is easy to overlook the actual content of Abbas' message, which is the reason he rose to the UNGA podium.

The message, aimed primarily at the West, is this one: The negotiations with Israel, as they have been held until now, are over; forget about the Palestinians returning to them. Forget about the Palestinians continuing to meet and discuss while Israel continues to construct settlements and ignore even the simple commitments it agreed to, such as the release of prisoners. The central headline that emerges from Abbas' speech is this: The Palestinians will not return to any negotiations that do not take as a starting point the final objective of a Palestinian state to stand alongside Israel, based on the '67 borders, and a binding timetable for its establishment.

Abbas' declarations belay an attempt to amend the bad impressions his recent speeches have made upon his people. This time, he used language that reflects the true reality facing Palestinians', as they perceive it.

Language used by Palestinians who oppose the renewal of negotiations with Israel also found its way into Abbas' speech; words heard spoken by demonstrators and by non-governmental organizations who participate in international conferences. For example: "We will not agree to be those who are always called to prove their good intentions through forsaking their rights, and to be silent when they are killed and their land stolen from them, and understand the conditions of the other side and the importance of keeping the coalition government from collapsing."

But make no mistake: Abbas did not use these words out of tactical considerations meant to improve his standing among his people, which has long been diminishing. Abbas truly is fed up of the futile negotiations with Israel, negotiation which have for many years now placed him, his belief in a two-state solution and the Palestinian Authority itself in a ludicrous light.

How great the distance between the Abbas who now extols the achievements of the BDS movement and its work against "Israel's occupation and apartheid policies" and the Abbas who once expressed his opposition to boycotts directed against Israel (as opposed to those directed against settlement-made products), and several times referred to it as "a neighbor."

A wide gulf divides the speaker who on Friday said Palestinians "will not forget or forgive and won't let war criminals go unpunished" and the one who in 2010 blocked the passage of the Goldstone report – which investigated allegations of war crimes committed by Israel and the Palestinians during "Operation Cast Lead" – to the hands of the UN Security Council.

Whoever remembers Abbas, in his office, describing to a group of young Israelis the security coordination with Israel as "holy" will have a difficult time believing that it is the same person who said on Friday that "such destruction as was caused by the recent offensive in Gaza has never been seen before in the modern era." The security agencies responsible for this destruction are, of course, the same ones the Palestinian Authority are in "holy" contact with.

The speech clearly rebukes Hamas, as well, although implicitly: Abbas frequently mentioned the unbearable destruction and suffering of Gaza, but he implied that his opponent organization did not need to undergo said destruction and suffering to prove the occupation's existence. He additionally spoke of Palestinian rights to struggle, yet set limits to this struggle: humanity, values, ethics, international law.

In recent weeks, there were some rumors that Abbas planned to announce in his speech that he would dissolve the Palestinian Authority if the Security Council would not accept his proposal to set a three-year schedule to end the occupation. Not only did a Hamas news site (Risala-Net) report this, but Palestinian government officials believed Abbas intended to announce this plan. A senior Fatah official said in the same breath, however, that Abbas could not prepare for an international conference on rebuilding Gaza while threatening the liquidation of the Palestinian Authority, designated as the main contractor in the reconstruction.

And that is exactly what was missing from the speech: A pointed message about what the Palestinians should do if and when Abbas' demand for a timetable to end the occupation and a new framework for negotiations would be rejected. "This is not Mahmoud Abbas' way to convey a pointed message," a senior Fatah official told Haaretz. "He works through creating a sequence."

This time, he declared a cap of three years, then sent Saeb Erekat and intelligence chief Majdi Faraj to the United States on a fumbling journey to the U.S. government. When it was apparent that Barack Obama would not support setting a deadline to end the occupation, Abbas announced in his speech that he would stick to his demand and continue on this track. When the Security Council vote fails, he will return to the General Assembly. Afterwards, he will intend to sign international treaties (including the Rome Statute), to call for the implementation of the Geneva Convention in the West Bank and Gaza, and to ask for the deployment of an international force. In between every declaration and actions within the UN framework, Abbas creates a respite period. In these intervals, Abbas still gives the Western countries an opportunity to pull themselves together and exert political pressure on Israel.

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