Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week provided a critical opportunity to set a positive atmosphere for negotiations with Israel. We believe he rose to the occasion.
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Abbas had already made helpful statements to Israeli audiences. Last fall, he told Israel’s Channel 2 television station that he believed he had “a right to see [Safed], not to live there.” Just a few weeks ago, he reportedly told a delegation of Meretz MKs, “We don’t need planes or missiles. All we need is a strong police force.” These were bold and important statements for the leader of the Palestinian people to make.
If current United States-sponsored discussions are to succeed, both Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will need to begin an honest conversation with their constituencies about the compromises that will be made on the path to peace. Each leader will have to prepare his own people for the sacrifices to be made and to signal to the other side that he is serious about reaching a negotiated end of conflict agreement.
Abbas’s speech at the UN provided an important chance to deliver such a message on the world stage with both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples watching. That is why the Israel Policy Forum organized a letter, signed by 100 prominent American Jewish supporters of a two-state solution, urging Abbas to strike an optimistic, but moderate tone in his General Assembly speech.
We believe the speech Abbas gave achieved this effect. True, there were some elements of the speech with which we took issue. For instance, we were disturbed by the way he dismissed Israel’s security concerns, calling them “pretexts.” We were also troubled by his endorsement of the European Union’s boycott of entities with ties to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
But on balance, the speech was an important step forward. The markedly moderated tone of the rhetoric, which focused on the future and the realistic national aspirations of the Palestinian people, was encouraging.
Last year at the UN, President Abbas said that the Israeli government adheres “to a policy of occupation, brute force and war,” and that there had not been “one word from any Israeli official expressing any sincere concern to save the peace process.” This year he said, “I am confident the Israeli people want peace,” and refrained from suggesting that the Israeli government desired otherwise.
Last year, President Abbas said that his people would accept “no less” than a state on the lands occupied in 1967, leaving many to wonder whether he sought more territory. This year he said it was “the objective” of negotiations to create a state on the lands occupied in 1967 and that he sought an agreement that would “declare an end of conflict and claims.”
The difference between the two speeches is that the peace process has resumed.
When Abbas delivered his last UNGA address, it was in the context of his seeking observer state status at the UN for a Palestinian state, a proposal vehemently opposed by Israel and the United States. Further, at the time that speech was delivered, it had been more than two years since the parties had met at the negotiating table. Consequently, emotions were high, and hopes were low. Abbas had calculated that he had more to gain by expressing his people’s frustrations than by trying to warm relations with Israel.
Now, amidst renewed peace talks that the American administration has pursued with the utmost determination, the situation is very different. Abbas, who spoke repeatedly last week about his own “insistence on success”, suddenly has a reason to speak seriously about peace, because there is a possibility that doing so will actually bring about results.
Of course, whether Abbas will be similarly constructive in the negotiation room remains to be seen. And the jury is also still out on whether he will muster the courage to make the sort of statements he made to Israeli TV and Israeli politicians directly to the Palestinian people. The weeks ahead will demonstrate whether he is taking meaningful action to prevent incitement at home and create an atmosphere that is genuinely conducive to peace.
But what is clear is that the Palestinian president sent a signal to the international community last week that he is ready to put the past behind him and move forward towards reaching a resolution. He may be the last Palestinian leader prepared to do so. Israel and its supporters cannot afford to miss the message.
Peter A. Joseph is Chairman of Israel Policy Forum and David A. Halperin is Executive Director.