Mahmoud Abbas’s Speech at the UN
by Karim Abuawad
Despite the fact that I was never a supporter of the Palestinian Authority, I have to say that I was very impressed with President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the UN last Friday. Granted, the Palestinian UN bid for statehood and Abbas’s speech will yield few tangible results on the ground. Life in Palestine will change little: the roadblocks will remain, the illegal settlements will continue to grow, eating up the land of the future Palestinian state, and the Israeli government, with the help of a right-wing, extremist Knesset, will continue issuing racist laws designed to make life harder than it already is for Palestinians.
This gloomy assessment, however, should in no way obscure the importance of Abbas’s speech and the PA’s UN bid for statehood. The importance of the speech has nothing to do with emotions or sentimentality. In addition to calling Obama’s bluff on his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Abbas, through a well-crafted speech, has also signaled a change in the terms of reference. For the first time in two decades (since the ill-fated Oslo Accords), Abbas has talked about a struggle against an aggression that lasted for 63 years (since 1948) rather than a struggle against an occupation that lasted for 44 years (since 1967). One of the things the Oslo Accords is criticized for is its erasure of the ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948 (see Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine), the results of which are still evident in refugee camps in several countries as well as in the occupied West bank and Gaza Strip. The Oslo Accords failed to address this key question because they were written as if nothing had happened before 1967. Abbas chose to bring up this critical question, while reminding his audience at the UN General Assembly that he himself was a victim of this ethnic cleansing when his family was forced to leave the costal city, Jaffa. He also reminded his audience that Palestinians have already compromised when they accepted the premise of peace in exchange for a state on the land occupied in 1967. How can they be asked to make more compromises? How can they be accused of being so stubborn as to refuse to compromise?
When it was the turn for the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to address the General Assembly, the concrete terms of reference outlined by Abbas were countered by an interesting assortment of Biblical stories and a genealogy of ancient names. In an op-ed piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote that
The world and the auditorium cheered for Abbas because he spoke like a 21st-century statesman, not like a co-opted archaeologist of centuries past. Abraham or Ibrahim, Hezekiah or Netanyahu, Benjamin or Jacob-Israel, Jew or Judea – our prime minister’s Bible and Holocaust stories should have made Israelis sitting down to their Friday night dinner feel awkward and uncomfortable.
Of course, not all Palestinians admired Abbas’s speech or supported the UN bid. The crowds that cheered for him upon his return to Ramallah and the news coverage that constantly talk about the “surge” in Abbas’s popularity should not fool anybody into believing that all Palestinians now wholeheartedly support the PA or the president. Some of the people in these crowds were civil servants who were dismissed early on the day of the president’s return in order to welcome him. Others were people who belong to the president’s political faction, and those are the people who are ready to show their support any day of the week.
The people who chose not show up for rallies because of their critical stance vis-à-vis the UN bid are taking all these developments with a grain of salt. Surely, they have all the right to question these new developments rather than participate in a fanfare before knowing what good this bid will bring them. Having said that, some of these critics have attacked, or even mocked, the UN bid either on the grounds of their distrust of anything the PA engages in, or on the grounds of legal concerns, claiming that the bid will ultimately compromise the right of return of Palestinian refugees because the state proposed is one on the 1967 borders while most refugees were expelled from the part of historical Palestine on which Israel was established in 1948.
While not qualified to comment on the legal concerns, which might, after all, be valid, I can comment on the reactions of the people who oppose anything the PA proposes, often without truly evaluating the PA’s actions. It goes without saying that it’s important to have people around who never sing the praises of those in power and instead take them to task. However, the criticism of the PA’s bid which I heard over the past few days doesn’t fall into this category. Calling Abbas’s speech a publicity stunt, or accusing him of “riding the wave” of the Arab Spring can hardly be considered credible critique. At the end of the day, the bid and Abbas’s speech showed us that the world still supports the Palestinian cause, that the “international community” isn’t made up of only the US and Western Europe, that Palestinians are indeed capable of saying No to the US administration, and that if Palestinian are determined to stand by their principles, they will find out that the free people of the world will stand with them. This isn’t an overdone sentimentality; it is the truth that was expressed through the 15 standing ovations that president Abbas received at the General Assembly.