NEW YORK — In an hour-long speech Monday at New York’s Cooper Union in New York, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tacitly compared the Palestinian struggle for statehood with historical civil rights struggles in the United States.
Founded in 1859, it was here in the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art’s 960-seat auditorium that Abraham Lincoln delivered his 1860 speech on slavery, a speech that catapulted him to the Republican nomination. Other historical figures to stand before the podium in the Great Hall include Frederick Douglas, a former slave turned statesman; Susan B. Anthony a leader of the womens’ movement, and Red Cloud, an Oglala Lakota chief.
“This great hall has been instrumental in suffrage, in Abraham Lincoln’s call to end slavery, in the civil rights movement and the Native American rights movement,” Abbas said, calling upon students to take up the Palestinian cause on campuses across the US.
During Monday’s address, Abbas often spoke directly to the youth in the audience, some of whom wore kippahs or keffiyehs.
Abbas vowed to seek a new timetable for peace talks, saying, “We must work to end the Israeli occupation and establish a Palestinian state. I say to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: End the occupation.”
Abbas told the audience that the Palestinian Authority’s 2012 attempt at UN membership was not an attempt to bypass a negotiated peace. He challenged the international community to support Palestine in its bid for statehood and membership in international organizations.
‘We want the international community to defend us against the terror of settlers and the Israeli Army’
“We ask the international community to stop hiding behind the resumption of talks. We want the international community to defend us against the terror of settlers and the Israeli Army,” he said.
At his Friday address at the UN General Assembly, Abbas is expected to call on the 193-member body to demand Israel withdraw from the West Bank and return to pre-1967 lines within three years.
Abbas said he would seek membership to the International Criminal Court, if such a resolution is rejected.
During Monday’s Cooper Union speech, Abbas did not mention Hamas’s use of human shields while shooting rockets at Israel, the terrorist organization’s storage of weapons in UN schools, or its abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June, a key factor in this summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
Instead, Abbas condemned aspects of the US’s long-standing close relationship with the Jewish state.
‘Just as friends don’t let friends drive drunk, a real friend would not let a friend engage in widespread killing of women and children’
“I made a prayer for an America that is a real friend of Israel and not a false friend. Just as friends don’t let friends drive drunk, a real friend would not let a friend engage in widespread killing of women and children and would not allow the bombing of UN schools as we saw in Gaza,” Abbas said.
That was – almost – music to the ears of Samia Ahmed, a New York University-Abu Dhabi political science student.
“I thought he was being a politician and for a politician he was very good – calling out Israel and America’s involvement, but I would have liked to see more of that. He was a bit too PC.”
Ameed Abutteen, who participated in 2009 Seeds of Peace and is a member of New York University’s Students for Justice in Palestine, was impressed with the Palestinian leader.
“I’m very excited to have heard him speak. I think he made very strong points that change starts with youth,” Abutteen said.
The Cooper Union event was co-hosted by the non-partisan Churches for Middle East Peace, CMEP.
“Our impression is [Abbas] is not well known to many Americans,” said Warren Clark, executive director of CMEP. “We believe he can be a partner for peace for Israel and that he and his story should be better known in the United States.”
It was also a chance for Abbas to step back from negotiations and give his idea of what peace with Israel could look like, Clark said.
It was a vision that not everyone in attendance appreciated.
“I was very disappointed that Cooper Union invited him here to speak. After he tells us in English that he wants peace, he goes back to Palestine where they sing songs about hating Jews,” said Bonnie D., whose daughter is a Cooper Union student.
David Shalom, an accounting and finance student at Yeshiva University, was also skeptical.
“I think he is trying to gain support in America and even Jewish support,” Shalom said. “But we have to remind ourselves that he speaks the exact opposite to his own people, the Palestinians.”
Aside from Cooper Union students, undergrads from other local universities attended, as well as youth groups from local churches, synagogues and mosques.
Daniel Landau, a Queen’s College student and member of the Rock Away Shomrin, said he role plays Abbas in his Israel-Palestinian negotiating class.
“I think as Jews we don’t necessarily agree with what he’s going to say, but it was an opportunity to watch him from a few rows back and hear what he had to say,” Landau said.
Ahead of the speech, several New York City Jewish student groups planned for protests. The New York University Orthodox club, a branch of Hillel, sent an email to its members urging them to reserve tickets, but not show up, thus leaving many of the hall’s seats empty. The Zionist Organization of America also planned to protest the speech.
In the end, however, there were no hecklers and no one walked out. Rather Abbas received a standing ovation when he finished speaking.
John Bassler of Darien, CT, supports a two-state solution, saying it’s in America’s interests. Whether Abbas, 79, is the right man for the job is of less importance.
“He’s all we have,” Bassler said. “So you have to be hopeful.”