With toned-down UN speech, Abbas tries to signal he’s still relevant
AnalysisEschews claim Israel a colonial project unrelated to Judaism

With toned-down UN speech, Abbas tries to signal he’s still relevant

After fiery addresses in Ramallah in which he threatened to cut ties with Israel, PA president has apparently realized tough talk won't get him far with this US administration

Khaled Abu Toameh is the Palestinian Affairs correspondent for The Times of Israel

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations Security Council on February 20, 2018 in New York (AFP/Timothy A. Clary)
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations Security Council on February 20, 2018 in New York (AFP/Timothy A. Clary)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the United Nations did not carry any surprises. The only change appeared to be in Abbas’s tone, which seemed calmer and more restrained.

Abbas feels lonely and wants to make a comeback. He wants Israel and the Americans to know that it’s too early to mourn him. He has apparently learned that tough talk won’t get him anywhere, especially not with this American administration.

Not that the speech was pro-Israel or sympathetic to the US.

Abbas once again managed to raise eyebrows when he mentioned the six million refugees and the 5,000 years of Canaanite history.

Abbas’s aides explained that the six million figure was based on UN statistics, saying Abbas did not make it up.

As for the thousands of years of history, the aides said that “many historians share this well-known historical fact.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) speaks at the United Nations Security Council on February 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary)

That’s all the aides had to say about those two topics. They pointed out that it wasn’t the first time Abbas had mentioned those issues and there was nothing new about them.

Once again, Abbas, who seems to enjoy the drama and attention his speeches and appearances draw, used the international podium to raise old talking points and reiterate his readiness to resume peace talks with Israel.

Those talking points include a commitment to the peace process and a strive to achieve a two-state solution.

Also, it wasn’t the first time that Abbas talked about the need to hold an international conference for peace. Nor was it the first time that he expressed opposition to violence and terrorism.

Abbas has been saying the same things for the past few weeks and months. In fact, his UN speech seems as if it were a collection of old sayings by Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the PLO Central Committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 14, 2018. (Flash90)

For weeks, Abbas aides had been talking about an “important” speech that he was expected to deliver at the UN.

The expectations were that Abbas, who has sounded more extremist in recent weeks, would deliver yet another fiery speech strongly denouncing the US and Israel.

However, Abbas sounded much more lenient in his speech than he did when he addressed PLO and Fatah meetings in Ramallah in the past few weeks.

At the UN, Abbas did not talk about cutting off ties with Israel, as he had done when he addressed the PLO and Fatah leaders. Nor did he talk about the end of the Oslo Accords, as he had done in recent weeks. Abbas’s talk about “acceptance of minimal land swaps, in equal value and ratio,” was perhaps the only surprise in the speech.

True, Abbas had talked about this scenario in the past. But in recent weeks, especially following mounting tensions between the PA and the US administration, he did not mention this position. On the contrary, Abbas has since only been making threats to end the peace process, revoke recognition of Israel and suspend all relations with the Israelis, including security coordination.

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

As such, the UN speech did signal a departure from Abbas’s recent hardline approach, which began after President Donald Trump’s December announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Abbas, for example, is no longer accusing Jews of “defiling with their filthy feet” Islamic holy sites. His UN speech did not include the claim that Israel is a “colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism” which he used in his recent Ramallah speech.

It’s also worth noting that Abbas did not rule out the possibility that the US administration would be part of an international conference for peace in the Middle East. Abbas is upset with the Trump administration, but he is clearly signaling — as the tone of his UN speech indicates — that the Palestinians are not interested in burning all bridges with Israel.

Nor are the Palestinians keen on boycotting Israel, contrary to the decisions taken by the PLO and Fatah leaders in Ramallah.

In fact, Abbas has since been acting against the decisions, which called for a complete disengagement from Israel. In the past week alone, a number of meetings took place in Ramallah and Paris between PA and Israeli officials. On the ground, security coordination between the PA and the IDF is continuing and even became stronger, at least according to Palestinians.

From his UN speech, Abbas is trying to present himself to the world in a less negative manner. By refraining from the fiery anti-US rhetoric of the past few weeks, and by authorizing meetings between his officials and Israel, the 82-year-old president is probably trying to show that he’s still a relevant player.

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