Palestinian President at the UN: Reaching the ford in the river

Graham Usher at the UN, New York, Saturday 24 Sep 2011

Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the United Nations may have been his greatest triumph, but it was also an admission of failure

Palestinians at UN
Zena, a 6-year-old Belgian-Palestinian girl, waves a Palestinian flag during a protest in central Brussels 21 September, demanding UN recognition of the Palestinian state (Photo: Reuters).

Sixty two years after Israel became a member state of the United Nations Mahmoud Abbas told the world body the time had come for Palestine (defined as the 1967 Israeli occupied territories of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem) to get the same status.

“No one with a shred of conscience can reject our application for full membership in the UN and our admission as an independent state,” he said.

Abbas is not a good speaker. But that remark drew one of several standing ovations in a packed chamber. He went through the history of the PLO’s gradual acceptance of a two state solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict; how that vision of peace has been wrecked by Israel’s settlement policies; and how he no longer had faith in a US steered “peace process” to salvage it; hence the need for “a greater and more effective role for the UN”, he said.

“The heart of the crisis is obvious: are we a superfluous people or are we a missing state that needs to be created immediately?”

After Abbas came Binyamin Netanyahu. He dismissed the charges against settlements, insisting that “the core of the conflict remains the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state”. He got sparse applause.

If the General Assembly were the arbiter of the Palestinians’ right to membership, Abbas would win hands down. If it could translate its massive majority in favor of Palestinian independence, the occupation would have ended years ago.

But the General Assembly is not the arbiter. The Palestinians have submitted their bid to the smaller more tightly controlled Security Council. And the US there will either gerrymander a majority against the bid or use their veto. “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN”, Barack Obama told the Assembly on Thursday, “but only through negotiations.” Netanyahu said the same.

Abbas cut a paradoxical figure at the UN. Long the gray man of Palestinian politics he has never been as impassioned as he was when he made his speech. Yet as he handed the bid to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon he has never looked so alone.

It’s easily explained: for Palestinians protesting in the occupied territories and elsewhere this was Abbas’ finest hour, the moment he finally defied Israel and America. Yet the speech was also an admission of political failure.

“Negotiations will be meaningless as long as the occupation army on the ground continues to entrench its occupation, instead of rolling it back,” he said.

More than any other Palestinian leader Abbas is associated with that kind of negotiation.

As the architect of Oslo he signed agreements that enabled Israel, shielded by the US veto, to colonize the very lands the Palestinians were supposed to be negotiating. He was indifferent to resistance, armed or otherwise. He quietly sided with US attempts to depose the elected Hamas government in Gaza. And he has backed a “state building project” in the West Bank which, while giving perks to the Palestinian elite, looks suspiciously like collaboration to the Palestinian masses.

The policy’s premise was naïve. The US is the superpower, argued Abbas, so we must do what it says. In return America will “deliver” Israel to end the occupation.

The bankruptcy of this approach was exposed by the very US president Palestinians believed would embody it. Twice since 2008 Obama has made proposals to revive negotiations: a settlement freeze and a pledge that the 1967 lines form the basis for negotiations. And twice he has caved in the face of Israel and/or domestic rebuttal.

The most abject surrender came on Thursday. Obama not only adopted every Israeli argument against the Palestinians bid for UN membership: he aired the basic Israeli narrative on the conflict: “peace is hard” because “Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it”. No mention of the occupation; no mention of settlements; and no mention that, since 2002, the entire Arab world has offered Israel a full peace if it withdrew fully from occupied land.

Abbas’ response to the speech was to bury his head in his hands. Yet the only surprise is that he could still be surprised. Obama’s is a tanked presidency. Until the next presidential elections there will be no foreign policy on Israel, only domestic policy. And that means an absolute need not to alienate US Jewish votes by criticizing Netanyahu.   

The motivation for the Palestinians’ turn to the UN, the rapturous reception they received there and the angst their bid stirs in the US, Europe and certain Arab states is the revolutions made by the peoples of the Middle East: the fear (or hope) – as one European diplomat put it – “that the Israel-Palestine conflict could become an issue on the Arab street”.

Used correctly – by reaching out to new democratic forces and more independent states in the region – this could be an enormous source of strength for the Palestinians. Yet Abbas paid only lip service to the “Arab spring”. By history and temperature he belongs to the old Arab order. He is honest enough to admit the failure of his policy has now reached a ford in the river. But he will not be the man to lead his people across it.

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