A toothless speech from a defanged Abbas

PA leader’s address was devoid of content aside from one big lie, and may mark the end of an era in the Palestinian territories

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A screen capture from Palestinian TV shows PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivering a speech on October 14, 2015, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Palestinian TV/AFP)
A screen capture from Palestinian TV shows PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivering a speech on October 14, 2015, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Palestinian TV/AFP)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech Wednesday night was delivered not by a leader but by a man being led. The words were those of a man who has little hope and understands that his influence over what is happening these days is limited, a politician who realizes that he is losing the public’s support and may be reaching the end of his political life.

The speech may well come to mark the end of an era in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian public, watching on TV at home, heard words that were uninspired and devoid of real content — as if for some reason the chieftain felt obliged to address his nation but had done so unwillingly, with nothing really to say. Besides more accusations against Israel and another lie – a big fat one, at that – there was nothing of note for either Palestinian or Israeli ears.

As soon as Abbas’s office told media outlets in the early afternoon that he was planning to make an important address at 8 p.m., speculation gathered pace.

Close associates of Abbas claimed they had no idea what new bombshell he might drop. Some suggested he would call to halt the violence and bloodshed. Others that he would announce his retirement, a move which would likely bring more violence.

Instead, as he did at the UN General Assembly, Abbas chose to continue his incitement against Israel, including resorting to telling a blatant lie. According to him, Israel is executing Palestinian children, like Ahmed Manasra, 13. But Abbas knew himself that Manasra, whose picture he showed, is being treated at Israel’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, and is not even in life-threatening condition, after being injured while carrying out a stabbing attack in Pisgat Ze’ev on Monday.

Amid the colorless desperation evident in the comments by Abbas, he did not quite sink to out-and-out incitement, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat used to do. He did not make a statement like “a million martyrs are marching on Jerusalem.” Mostly, though, he made accusations against Israel.

It is worth emphasizing at this point: one of the main reasons that the current round of violence has largely stayed in the capital and not metastasized to the West Bank is Abbas himself.

The West Bank is not drawn to the chaos; there are protests against Israel every day but their scale is very small. Even on Tuesday, announced as a “Day of Rage,” only some 2,000 people were protesting across the West Bank, a paltry figure compared to the previous two intifadas.

The question is how much longer will Abbas manage to keep the West Bank muzzled. And no less importantly – how much longer will he want to.

Wednesday’s speech illustrated that the Palestinian leader and those around him are deliberating over how to proceed. Quite a few senior Fatah officials want to escalate the confrontation with Israel, especially by organizing mass protests, but Abbas is against such a move. They also demand an end to security cooperation with Israel; Abbas resists this as well. And indeed, the ongoing security coordination with Palestinian security agencies in the West Bank is in large part the reason that protests there have tended to remain small.

The one bullet left in the PA president’s magazine, so to speak, is pressing on with applications at international institutions like the International Criminal Court at The Hague. This, however, is not a new measure and certainly not be a game-changer. Abbas will in all likelihood carry on with Saeb Erekat’s plan to “internationalize” the conflict and to hope to have the world community increase pressure on Israel.

This path may see Abbas lose the Palestinian street, which wants to see revenge and terror attacks. For now, he’s walking a dangerous tightrope: His troops may be actively stop terror attacks and violence in the West Bank, but he is supporting the rampant surge in attacks and avoiding condemnations of terrorism.

A stronger Abbas might have been able to carve a different way out, but for a weak leader, this is apparently the only option — not utterly unlike the prime minister of Israel, who also cannot propose long-term solutions for the situation and suffices with promising to use tougher measures against “terrorism.”

Hence, the paper tiger of a speech delivered Wednesday night. Abbas may have conceived the address as a last-ditch attempt to win over the Palestinian public, currently transfixed by a rabble of East Jerusalem teens who go on stabbing sprees. He has long since lost the public in Israel.

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