NEW YORK — One narrative surrounding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Friday address to the United Nations General Assembly could begin with his entry to an earlier session in the plenary hall.
Abbas, striding through the UN’s corridors Wednesday, reached the doors to the plenary together with his sizable security detail to attend the General Assembly’s opening speeches. The guards at the doors to the room told him that he could go in — but that those guys he came with needed to go around to the other door.
Abbas entered. Behind him, a brief scuffle broke out between his entourage and the UN guards. Safely inside the room, such minor unpleasantnesses literally behind him, Abbas was somehow above the fray, an elder statesman representing his people to a largely sympathetic audience.
This is the Abbas who makes speeches at New York universities, and is a trendy figure for student crowds interested in the Palestinian cause. He’s a statesman, one of the good guys. Those pushy, aggressive guys he comes with? They’re not really part of the picture at all….
But the more accurate narrative actually began two days earlier, with a long run-up of officials dropping hints that the Abbas who would take the podium at the annual meeting of world leaders would be Abbas the activist, and that he would “drop a bomb.” The Abbas of 2014, they made clear, was here to shake up the UN, to demand strident action to achieve what decades of terror, negotiations, and incrementalism have failed to achieve.
On Friday in New York, we got a little of Abbas the statesman, calling for an immediate resumption of diplomacy with Israel, but this was overwhelmed by Abbas the bruiser, dismissing diplomacy with Israel as unworkable. “It is impossible, and I repeat – it is impossible – to return to the cycle of negotiations that failed to deal with the substance of the matter and the fundamental question,” Abbas warned. “There is neither credibility nor seriousness in negotiations in which Israel predetermines the results via its settlement activities and the occupation’s brutality.”
And the preconditions that Abbas set in his speech for useful talks — ones in which the “agreed objective” is “ending the Israeli occupation and achieving the independence of the State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital on the entire Palestinian Territory occupied in the 1967 war” — all but eliminate the possibility of getting Israel to sit down at the table at all.
This was an address deep in the helpless rhetoric of victimization but one that also viciously leveled the outrageous, incendiary charge of genocide against Israel. The PA president has a history of deeply provocative major speeches, issued even during recent years and even during periods of relative calm with Israel; Friday’s calculated genocide calumny rendered this speech arguably the most provocative of all.
Abbas was strident in his rhetoric, accusing Israel of having “chosen to make it a year of a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people.” And with similar calculation, he referred later to Israel, in terms harking back to pre-Oslo Accords terminology, as “the occupying Power,” “the colonial occupying Power,” and “the racist occupying State.”
The words “Power” and “State,” it is worth noting, were capitalized each time in the official Palestinian-issued transcript of Abbas’s talk — on the off-chance that it was not clear that this was a stand-in for referring to Israel by its proper name.
Sometimes the statesmanlike Oslo veteran and the provocative, uncompromising PLO apparatchik combined schizophrenically in a single sentence, but the latter inevitably overwhelmed the former.
Take, for instance, this passage: “Our grief, trauma and anger will not for one moment make us abandon our humanity, our values and our ethics; we will always maintain our respect and commitment to international law, international humanitarian law and the international consensus, and we will maintain the traditions of our national struggle established by the Palestinian fedayeen and to which we committed ourselves since the onset of the Palestinian revolution in early 1965.”
The first half sounds very UN-ish — positive affirmation of law and consensus, values that are ostensibly near and dear to the hearts of the world’s international bodies. But in the same breath, the other Abbas takes over, memorializing the fedayeen, notorious in Israeli historical memory for their raids on civilian communities.
So who was the intended recipient of Abbas’s speech? Was it a message to President Barack Obama that Abbas would no longer follow Washington’s expectations, reinforcing his refusal in March to endorse Secretary Kerry’s framework for a permanent accord, presaging the collapse of the negotiations just weeks later? The dismissal of the utility of previous negotiations — together with Abbas’s implied message that Washington had failed to secure Israeli good behavior, notably on settlements, during the talks — certainly sounded like a “you’re fired” order to the US negotiators.
And the angry US response, issued by State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki, demonstrated that the message had reached its desired recipient.
But Abbas’s barbs were aimed further afield than Washington, too. His Iran-style turning of Israel from a legitimate state into the entity-that-must-not-be-named — as well as the references to Palestinian revolution and, of course, fedayeen — was focused on two other audiences.
The genocide, war crimes, resource theft and colonialism accusations against Israel were red meat for Palestinian domestic consumption. Abbas was plainly intent on not coming off as too moderate and thus helping Hamas — with its summer war victory claims — into a stronger position on the Palestinian street.
However, that slanderous content also spoke loudly to Israelis and to attuned pro-Israel audiences. The American Jewish Committee issued a rare statement on Rosh Hashanah to complain that “it made a speech with tough content come off as even more pugnacious, a rejection of some forms of negotiation sound like a rejection of all, and touched upon sensitive ears as reflecting a particular kind of anti-Israel rhetoric that moderates hoped had been relegated to the pre-Oslo past.”