Opinion

Abbas' Brave Words at the UN on Jewish-Muslim Relations

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, Feb. 11, 2020.
Seth Wenig,AP

“We are not against the Jews. We are Muslims. A Muslim who says ‘I’m against a Jew or against the Torah’ is a heretic.” The person who said these words is not a Muslim cleric, it’s Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority. It’s part of a speech he delivered in front of the members of the United Nations Security Council last week. It’s a courageous, far-reaching statement, which has never been heard from a Palestinian leader, not even from Yasser Arafat, who signed the Oslo Accords.

It was a spontaneous utterance, which apparently was not included in the written speech, and it’s not certain that the authors of the speech were happy to hear it. Such a statement is likely to arouse harsh criticism against Abbas from the opposition Palestinian factions, headed by Hamas, who consider “the deal of the century” an opportunity to unite the ranks and drag the PA into breaking all ties with Israel.

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But Abbas is not disturbed by what the opposition thinks of him. It’s much more important to him to convince the members of the Security Council and the Middle East Quartet (United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia) that the PA – and not Hamas, some of whose leaders are still hostage to their hatred of the Jews – is the only address for bringing about a diplomatic arrangement. Abbas prefers to conduct a diplomatic struggle against “the deal of the century” rather than getting trapped in the bear hug offered by the opposition Palestinian factions on the left and right, and being dragged into a violent conflict with Israel.

The sentence: “Whatever happens, we won’t resort to acts of terror, we aren’t terrorists,” echoed repeatedly in his speech, along with his words about peace, partnership and good neighborly relations, in an almost desperate attempt to convince the Security Council that the time has come to reward him and the PA for this approach.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the perseverance of this man, who has been knocking on the doors of the UN for over a decade to convince the member nations to give hope to the Palestinian people and to recognize their right to establish a state within the 1967 borders alongside Israel. In a speech in September 2014 before the UN General Assembly, Abbas quoted from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “We suffer from an incurable disease called hope.” And this time, too, he asked, almost begged, “Don’t kill the hope of the Palestinian people.”

The UN General Assembly has become the Palestinians’ wailing wall, and Abbas continues to visit this wall, again and again, though he knows he has no chance of achieving anything there as long as the Americans have a veto.

Abbas is disappointed with the Americans, but in this speech he maintained restraint, he repeated his rejection of the deal of the century, but made a point of saying that it is not really the handiwork of U.S. President Donald Trump, but rather a product of bad advice he was given. “Trump isn’t like that, I know him. We had very good discussions,” said Abbas. He made it clear that among those fighting the plan are members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and 300 senior officers who served in the Israel Defense Forces.

Abbas is trying to convince everyone that a unilateral plan which is being forced on the Palestinian side will not bring about peace, and if the Palestinian people lose hope, everything will blow up. He is apparently beginning to understand that to get rid of the damaging influence of the American advisers, he must convince the Israelis and the Quartet that the best way to advance peace and security lies in direct negotiations, or an international conference.

Abbas reminds the Security Council of the successful attempt of the Israelis and Palestinians at direct negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords, which he calls the best “interim agreement.” He also met with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with whom he reached understandings that might have ripened into an agreement, if not for Olmert’s trial and prison sentence. The present meeting may signal to the Israeli public that Abbas wants to return to those understandings.

Towards the end of his political life, Abbas is perhaps beginning to understand that he missed several opportunities for promoting a diplomatic solution, and that it isn’t worth it to place himself among the ranks of Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who, in his refusal to accept the UN Partition Plan in 1947, brought the Nakba (catastrophe) on the Palestinians. He certainly hears the recommendations of experienced Palestinian politicians, such as Ziad AbuZayyad, not to reject the deal of the century, lest it be a mistake like rejecting the Partition Plan.

AbuZayyad has considerable criticism of the plan, but he believes the best, most effective way to deal with it is by accepting its good parts and fighting to improve the bad parts at an international summit conference. Abbas, who is seen by many as a nondescript leader and unsuccessful successor to Arafat, on whose watch the most severe, painful split between the Palestinians took place, is now facing the last and perhaps most important test of his political life.

Arafat demonstrated courage when he signed the Oslo Accords (and even dubbed them “the peace of the brave”). Abbas will be in need of political realism and diplomatic cunning – or “shatra,” as it is called in Arabic. This agreement, if it is signed, could be called “a peace of the wise.”

Dr. Marzan is a researcher of Palestinian society and politics in the University of Haifa political science department and holder of the Reuven Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy.