On September 27, the chairman of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas (who is also president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Fatah Party) spoke to the U.N. General Assembly.
While he reiterated his support for the two-state solution, Abbas used his time at the podium mostly to revile Israel in terms we associate more with Hamas than with the Palestinian Authority. Here, in the order in which he employed them, are Abbas’s words about Israel.
First, Abbas warned of “the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country,” and “terrorist militias” of settlers making “relentless waves of attacks against our people” who have become “fixed targets for acts of killing.” Settler attacks are “fueled by a climate of incitement in the Israeli curriculum” which is “rife with hatred.” This is an astonishing statement given the way Israel is treated in Palestinian textbooks and in the PA’s own broadcasts (see Palestinian Media Watch’s account of how Jews and Judaism are presented on the Palestinian airwaves here and an analysis of new textbooks here).
Israeli soldiers commit “war crimes” and acts of “murder” and “torture,” Abbas continued. There is a “campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people.” There is a “suffocating blockade” on Gaza, where the people continue to suffer from “the destructive war of aggression committed against them years ago.” This is presumably a reference to 2008, when Israel responded to the thousands of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza into Israel by Hamas and other terrorist groups, but there is no mention of Hamas in the Abbas speech. Nor does he mention that the border between Egypt and Gaza remains largely closed to commerce by Egypt. As for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, they are all “soldiers in their people’s struggle for freedom, independence, and peace”—all of them including, it seems, terrorists who have killed civilians.
Israeli “discourse” is “inciting religious conflict.” The PLO wants negotiations but “the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution.” This is a particularly interesting statement coming from the man who rejected the extremely generous offers made to him by Israeli prime minister Olmert in 2008. Abbas says that Israel wants final Palestinian borders that would produce “small Palestinian enclaves surrounded by large Israeli settlement blocs.” Olmert’s offer, as Olmert himself has described it, would have given the PLO 93.6 percent of the West Bank plus land swaps to ensure that it had 100 percent of the total land area it claims. But Abbas said in his U.N. speech that “Israel is promising the Palestinian people a new catastrophe, a new Nakba.”
Abbas then stops for a moment to say that “we continue to sincerely extend our hands to the Israeli people to make peace” and “progress towards making peace is through negotiations between the PLO and Israel.” But what is there to negotiate? “Racial settler colonization must be condemned, punished, and boycotted” and “completely halted,” for the goal must be “realization of the independence of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, over the entire territory occupied by Israel since 1967.” This would mean not only Israeli abandonment of towns like Ma’ale Adumim, with a population of 40,000, but of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. That is, the Western Wall of the Temple would itself be in Palestine. It may of course be argued that this is mere fluff by Abbas and not a serious negotiating position, but obviously when he says such things he is destroying his own ability to negotiate and compromise.
Abbas then states that “the Israeli occupation remains the only obstacle to the realization of the State of Palestine.” This is quite a claim when one considers that he himself rules only half of Palestine while the other half is in the hands of Hamas, and that due to the division no national elections have been held among the Palestinians since 2006.
Abbas then mentions his desire for U.N. membership, but says only that “consultations” about this have begun. No sense of urgency is conveyed about what, in his speech to the U.N. last year, was the big ticket item. When he refers to “the acceptance of Palestine as a Member State” of UNESCO last year, he bizarrely adds, “the homeland of Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said is playing its role in UNESCO with high responsibility and professionalism.”
Darwish was regarded widely as the Palestinian national poet; one has to wonder what Abbas thought he was contributing by mentioning Said (whose books the Palestinian Authority banned for a while, until he praised Yasser Arafat for refusing to make a peace deal with Israel at Camp David).
Abbas nears the end with a poetic section evoking the Nakba, meaning the establishment of Israel in 1948, and the passing of so many people who “witnessed its horrors” and “were killed in wars, massacres, attacks, raids, and incursions.” He adds that “their beautiful country … was a beacon of coexistence, tolerance, [and ]progress,” an account that would surprise the Jews of the Palestinian Mandate who lived through the riots and pogroms of the 1920s and 1930s, where hundreds were killed and many more injured time after time.
Abbas then concludes with a peroration about peace and independence, adding oddly that “national reconciliation” will be achieved “via resorting to the ballot boxes, which will confirm our people’s democratic choice.” This, from a man who was elected in 2005 for a four-year term of which he is now in the eighth year.
Speeches like this are a great mistake. When it comes to anti-Israel rhetoric Abbas will never out-do Hamas and should not try. The only thing a speech like this will do is persuade Israelis that he is not a serious partner for peace. His continuing refusal of any honest dialogue with his own people about the compromises peace will require suggests that he does not see any serious negotiation coming, will not prepare for one, and does not really seek one.
Perhaps far more striking than Abbas’s discussion of Palestine at the General Assembly this year is the discussion of the subject by President Obama. He mentioned it briefly, in one paragraph late in his speech, and used the words Palestine or Palestinian only twice. In his first address to the U.N., in 2009, he mentioned these words thirteen times and the subject was central to his speech, in paragraph after paragraph. The subject faded away this year.
One hopes Abbas will notice this. He would do far better to ask himself why the old rhetoric is failing to advance the interests of the Palestinian people than to go on, year after year, repeating it. The standing ovation he gets each year in the General Assembly hall, should, by now, not deceive him: The delegates love to applaud denunciations of Israel. But they bring progress for his people no closer.