Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ moving speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Friday was certainly the high point of his career. His address will be forever remembered because Abbas was able to do what no Palestinian leader has ever done in the past: make the moral case for Palestinian independence in a clear, coherent, reasonable manner at the highest international forum.
Most importantly, Abbas’ message was internationally receivable. Only the most recalcitrant supporters of the Israeli occupation could fail to have been moved by his words. Many in the room, including some jaded individuals, were left in tears.
This was the speech the late President Yasser Arafat never gave, missing two key opportunities to do so. In his first address to the General Assembly in 1974, Arafat appeared as a belligerent revolutionary speaking about holding a gun in one hand and an olive branch in the other. His comments were well-received among many Arabs and others in the Third World, but they played right into the hands of those who sought to depict him as a violent terrorist. Arafat’s speech at the Oslo Agreements signing ceremony at the White House in 1993 was rambling, semi-coherent and downright boring.
Abbas’ speech on Friday did for the Palestinian cause what Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver did for Zionism and Israeli statehood in a powerful UN speech in 1947. This was especially true of his closing remarks, in which Silver said that the Jewish people were “no less deserving” of statehood than others. Abbas’ speech also echoed the 1993 White House speech of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in which he said the conflict must end, emphasizing the word “enough.”
The most important part of Abbas’ speech was his blunt question to the international community about the Israeli occupation, now more than 40 years old. “Is this acceptable?” Abbas asked. In another crucial passage, he observed that “in the absence of absolute justice, we decided to adopt the path of relative justice—justice that is possible and could correct part of the grave historical injustice committed against our people.” The only important element that could have strengthened Abbas’ speech was a concerted outreach to the Israeli public, but this was not his goal or mission at that moment.
Even most Israeli journalists noted the rapturous reception the speech received from the representatives of the international community and what this implied about the level of global support for Palestinian independence. By contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address was insulting and offensive, describing the United Nations itself as a “house of lies.” Netanyahu said that he was committed to a two-state solution, but time and again made the case for continuing the occupation.
To many Israelis and Americans, the Palestinian move at the UN looks very confrontational. However, it actually leaves the window for a compromise wide open. The Palestinians have submitted their application for full UN membership to the Security Council, but they are not pressing for an immediate vote that could prompt a US veto.
In a move that was extremely significant, the Middle East Quartet issued a statement in conjunction with Abbas’ speech showing that it had not resolved its differences over the Palestinian issue. Nevertheless, it placed the Palestinian UN bid back in the context of the established peace process. What happens in the coming weeks will depend greatly on whether the Quartet can develop language that lays down the basis for future negotiations, when political circumstances allow for them to resume with a reasonable prospect of success.
Alternatively, the European Union, which is uncomfortably divided over the statehood issue, may develop language for a General Assembly resolution that it can unite behind. Such a measure could provide the Palestinians with significant diplomatic gains, without provoking a confrontation with Israel and the United States.
Now the most important task is to protect and enhance the successes developed by the institution-building program of the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli military confirms that security cooperation with the Palestinian security services remains “strong,” and international donors have reaffirmed that Palestinians are ready for independence.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the US Congress are chomping at the bit to cut or eliminate American aid to the Palestinian Authority, which represents the single biggest source of external funding for the Palestinians. Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, in turn, is threatening to withhold Palestinian tax revenues that make up the bulk of the annual Palestinian Authority budget.
Everyone has been playing to their domestic constituencies, and both Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s political positions have been strengthened by their performances. Even US President Barack Obama’s address was more of a campaign speech than anything else, offering empathy to Israel but none to the Palestinians.
Now is the time to move beyond the theatrics at the UN and return to what is achievable. This means continuing to build the basis of a Palestinian state through international support and providing funding for institution-building. It also means serious work by all parties to lay the groundwork for successful negotiations, so that domestic political dynamics in the key societies involved can be aligned with their stated policies of seeking a genuine two-state solution.