Ad-libbed at the General Assembly, Mahmoud Abbas’s full-blown rejectionism

Speaking at the UN’s Nakba fest, the PA chief contradicted his previous assurances to Israel. In a reflection of the collapse of negotiation prospects, hardly anyone even noticed

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a Nakba Day event at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, May 15, 2023 (Ed Jones/AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a Nakba Day event at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, May 15, 2023 (Ed Jones/AFP)

This Editor’s Note was sent out on Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

For years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has delivered speeches, at the UN and elsewhere, inciting viciously against Israel — describing Zionism as a colonial enterprise unrelated to Judaism, denying Jewish history in the Holy Land, accusing Israel of carrying out “holocausts” against the Palestinians…

Often, his most incendiary remarks are ad-libbed — absent from the officially distributed, presumably carefully prepared texts of his addresses. Remarks thrown in at his pleasure, and thus the most faithful expression of what he really believes and wants to say.

Such was the case at the UN General Assembly’s anti-Israel Nakba fest on Monday. This was an unprecedented event convened to highlight the “catastrophe” that befell the Palestinians with the revival of Israel in 1948 — the “catastrophe,” that is, that stemmed from the Arab world’s violent rejection of the UN’s endorsement in 1947 of the Jewish people’s right to the revival of their ancient Jewish homeland alongside what was to have been a first-ever Palestinian state.

Abbas, as has become his norm, utilized the forum to castigate the UK, the US and the international community for supporting the Jewish people’s right to statehood and, departing from his prepared text, accused Israel of utilizing Nazi-style propaganda to advance its narrative.

But the Palestinian Authority president also ad-libbed a highly significant reversal of his previously stated positions, a change of stance that shows him now rejecting not only any Israeli presence and claims in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, but also Israel’s legitimacy in its pre-1967 borders, while demanding the termination of Israel as a majority-Jewish state.

In years past, Abbas was reliably reported to have made clear that he did not expect Israel to take in millions of descendants of Palestinians made homeless during the fighting that surrounded the establishment of Israel, since this would remake Israel’s demographics and turn the world’s only Jewish state into a binational Jewish-Palestinian entity. “On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million, or even 1 million – that would mean the end of Israel,” Abbas was quoted telling his own peace negotiators in 2008, for example, in documents reported by Al Jazeera.

Citing his own circumstances, moreover, Abbas told Israeli television in 2012 that the Palestinians under his leadership sought statehood only in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war and had no claims on pre-1967 Israel, and that he himself, a refugee from Safed in northern Israel, did not consider that he had the right to return to live there.

“Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital,” said Abbas to Channel 12. “This is now and forever … This is Palestine for me. I am a refugee, but I am living in Ramallah… I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts are Israel.”

He vouchsafed that he had visited Safed, and would like to do so again, but did not expect to make it his home: “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” he declared.

In New York on Monday, in stark contrast, Abbas, sporting a little key in his lapel to signify the Palestinian demand for a “right of return,” reversed his 2012 Israeli TV interview promise.

“I am a Palestinian refugee. I want to return to my land,” he told the General Assembly. “I want Safed,” he specified, to warm applause.

It is a reflection of how irrelevant and hopeless the notion of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become — with Israel shifted to the right since the Second Intifada suicide-bombing onslaught, and now led by an unprecedentedly hard-right coalition — that this drastically changed stance barely registered in the reporting of the Nakba event and Abbas’s address to it.

Abbas, at 87, is a fading force who evidently has decided he wishes to be remembered as a leader in the Yasser Arafat mold whose rejectionist positions doomed the Palestinian quest for statehood. Meanwhile, the Islamist Hamas, consolidating its hold on Gaza and relentlessly building up its forces toward its undimmed goal of eliminating the Jewish state, is working assiduously to supplant the Palestinian Authority — thwarted, ironically, by the security forces of the very Israel that Abbas demonizes.

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