NEW YORK – For a change, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas kept his promise. In his speech to the UN General Assembly Wednesday night, he indeed threw a bombshell when he declared that the Palestinians would no longer uphold the agreements they have signed with Israel over the last 20 years. But the question that remains unanswered is whether this bomb will be detonated instantly and generate serious shock waves, lie there as unexploded ordnance that could go off at any moment, or turn out to be not a real bomb at all, but at best a stink bomb whose stench will quickly dissipate.
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It’s not by chance that the Prime Minister’s Office declined to respond to the most important part of Abbas’ speech; Israel still doesn’t fully understand its significance. But Jerusalem’s initial analysis of the speech interpreted it as a mere threat. After all, Abbas didn’t specify a date as of which the Palestinians would no longer honor their agreements with Israel. Nor did he specify which agreements he meant and whether security coordination was included in them.
According to this initial Israeli analysis, Abbas indeed threw a bomb, but he hasn’t yet pressed the detonator. He’ll wait a little longer to see what impact his words have. If some dramatic change occurs, he can dismantle his bomb and put it back in the attic. But if nothing happens, the bomb is liable to go off, and then the already sensitive situation in the territories will deteriorate further.
Now, all the frantic running around will begin. Indeed, it had already started Wednesday night, when the foreign ministers of the Quartet – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – met together with the foreign ministers of several Arab and European countries to discuss the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians.
In another two weeks, a senior delegation from the Quartet will travel to Israel. EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday night, and she, too, plans to travel to the region. Even the Americans, who over the past few months have shunned any engagement with this issue, might be dragged into it against their will.
The biggest question is what Israel will do. At this stage, it seems like Netanyahu and his government have no strategy on the Palestinian issue aside from attempting to preserve the status quo at all costs, even as it is slipping through their fingers.
One person who sat in the UN General Assembly on Wednesday and listened to Abbas’ speech was the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. In the absence of any clear government policy or decision, he is the one who will have to clean up the mess.
Not long ago, Hafez Barghouti, editor in chief of the official PA newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida, published an article in which he analyzed Abbas’ possible heirs. After going over all the candidates, he crowned Mordechai as the next Palestinian president. Abbas’ speech, in which he declared that Israel, as the occupying power, must take responsibility for the territories, brings the moment when this scenario might actually be realized nearer.
A few minutes after Abbas left the podium, journalists, diplomats and curious onlookers began congregating in the UN Rose Garden for the ceremony at which the Palestinian flag was raised at UN headquarters for the first time. Several foreign ministers also attended, including French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The primary task facing these foreign ministers was to push their way into the front row so they could be immortalized at this historic moment. As long as they were being photographed by the flag, they were doing their bit to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It was a surreal show, half tragic, half comic. Five minutes after the president of Palestine announced to the entire world that he headed a bankrupt country and was soon planning to close up shop, representatives of dozens of countries stood there and applauded a flag-raising that symbolized a virtually reality, one which exists only at UN headquarters in New York.
Despite this theater of the absurd, one shouldn’t make light of the importance this symbolic act holds for the Palestinians. The spontaneous cries of joy that erupted from dozens of Palestinian-Americans who came to the ceremony, the sea of flags that has flooded the Palestinian Authority in recent days and the dozens of television screens erected in major West Bank cities, where entire families gathered to watch the event, are all reminiscent of similar events from Israel’s own history.
Even if no independent state emerges from this in the foreseeable future, for one brief moment, Palestinians could say to themselves, “We’re on the map and we’re staying there.”