'We are employees of the occupation'

At UN, Abbas urges multilateral peace effort, lays out plan for talks

In address to Security Council, Palestinian Authority president claims there are 13 million Palestinians awaiting statehood, six million of them refugees

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

PA President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a United Nations Security Council concerning meeting concerning issues in the Middle East, at UN headquarters, February 20, 2018 in New York City.(Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a United Nations Security Council concerning meeting concerning issues in the Middle East, at UN headquarters, February 20, 2018 in New York City.(Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for a “multilateral international mechanism” to pave the way for Palestinian statehood while addressing the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday.

In the rare address to the world body, Abbas also accused Israel and the United States of obstructing peace efforts.

“To solve the Palestine question, it is essential to establish a multilateral international mechanism emanating from an international conference,” the PA president said, adding that he anticipated a summit by mid-2018.

The plan is designed to replace the central role that the United States has played as mediator in the peace process and has been pushed by Abbas since US President Donald Trump’s December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The administration has taken Jerusalem off the table,” Abbas said, quoting the words used by Trump last month to describe the declaration.

Mahmoud Abbas speaking at the UN Security Council on February 20, 2018. (screen capture: UNTV)

The PA president also panned the US administration’s failure to clarify its position on whether or not it supports a two-state solution to the conflict. He lashed out at Washington’s decision to cut aid from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, “which they helped establish,” and blasted the US threats to close down the offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington.

Abbas asserted that the Palestinians “are ready to begin negotiations immediately in order to achieve peace.” But he also conditioned negotiations on the withdrawal of Trump’s Jerusalem recognition and the cessation of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

He said his proposed “multilateral international mechanism” should lead to full UN membership for the state of Palestine, mutual recognition of Israel and a Palestinian state, and the creation of a new international mechanism to reach a final settlement.

Critics from Israel and the US panned his speech as nothing new and disputed his assertion that the Palestinians have never rejected negotiations with Israel.

Abbas also pledged to “intensify” his efforts to obtain full member state status at the UN, where the Palestinians are currently considered a non-member observer state.

The Palestinians, Abbas argued, have a historical presence in the territory dating back “5,000 years.”

“We are descendants of the Canaanites that lived in Palestine 5,000 years ago, and have continuously remained there to this day,” the PA president insisted as he began his speech, adding that there are currently 13 million Palestinian awaiting statehood.

“Six million Palestine refugees continue to suffer from the cruelty of exile and loss of human security. They continue to wander the world after the loss of their peaceful and stable lives in their homeland,” he said. “They are part of the 13 million Palestinians whose country has not yet been recognized as a full member state of the United Nations, despite the numerous resolutions reaffirming their right to self-determination and statehood on their national land.”

Arguing that it undermined peace efforts, Abbas lambasted Israel’s continued settlement construction and “continued occupation of Palestinian lands,” claiming that that the PA had “become an authority without authority.”

L-R: UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, US peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, and US President Donald Trump’s special adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner speak ahead of a UN Security Council session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on February 20, 2018. (Screen capture: United Nations)

“We are working for the occupation, we are employees for the occupation, and we say that Israel must be held to its obligations as an occupying power,” he said.

The comments echoed hardline Palestinian critics of the PA, who charge that the administrative body works at the behest of Israel.

Abbas also appeared to attempt to walk back recent comments — derided as anti-Semitic — in which he denied the Jewish connection to Israel, saying that “our problems are not with the Jewish people. Our problem is only with the occupiers of our land.”

In attendance at the UN hall for the speech was Trump’s special adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has been tasked with managing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts for the White House. Joining him was Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for the peace process.

Welcomed by Israel, Trump’s December 6 announcement angered the Palestinians, who also consider the city the capital of their future state, and led them to say the US had disqualified itself from its traditional role as lead mediator in talks with Israel.

Responding to the speech, a White House spokesperson characterized Abbas’s comments as “old talking points and undeveloped concepts for each of the core issues,” saying they would not achieve piece.

“We are trying to do the opposite and will continue working on our plan which is designed to benefit both the Israeli and Palestinian people. We will present it when it is done and the time is right,” Spokesman Josh Raffel said in a statement.

In a statement ahead of the visit, Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told state media that a “new phase of struggle has started,” as they seek to protect their claim to Jerusalem. Senior Palestinian official Nasser al-Qudwa said on Monday that Abbas would be looking to gain support for a multilateral initiative, but added that the Palestinians would not dictate what shape it would take.

The 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement negotiated by the so-called P5+1 — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — is seen by many Palestinians as a good example.

UN chief Antonio Guterres speaking at the Security Council on February 20, 2018. (screen capture: UNTV)

“We can live with different formats, the P5, P5+1, expanded Quartet, we can live with an international peace conference,” Qudwa told a news conference in Ramallah.

“Anything that can do the job, provide a reasonable basis for negotiation and follow up the process — sponsor it until it successfully concludes.”

Israel, which often accuses both the European Union and the United Nations of bias against it, would not accept any mediator other than the US.

The United Nations granted Palestine the status of a non-member observer state in 1992, but an upgrade to full membership would require unanimous backing from the Security Council — an unlikely outcome, given the near-certainly of a US veto.

The Trump administration is preparing a new peace plan even though chances for agreement appear dim.

In December, the General Assembly voted 128-9, with 35 abstentions, to reject the US decision to recognize Jerusalem. That vote in the 193-nation assembly came after 14 of the 15 council members voted in favor of a similar measure. The United States vetoed that draft resolution.

AFP contributed to this report.

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