Each September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stands before the United Nations General Assembly and in fiery, confrontational language, gives a speech almost fully comprised of allegations of Israel’s crimes and misdeeds against the Palestinian people.
In past years, in making the case for Palestinian nationhood and independence, Abbas has charged Israel with a litany of offenses, accentuating the alleged violations with the liberal use of incendiary buzzwords, including “colonial,” “apartheid,” “racist,” “ethnic cleansing,” “war crimes,” the beginning of a “new Nakba,”and “Judaization,” – terms which are widely used in campaigns to delegitimize Israel.
Sure, Abbas generally states the Palestinian desire for peace and the rejection of terrorism. However, in the context of the totality of his rhetoric, and the overwhelming negativity of his tone, Abbas’ comments in support of peace and negotiations seem merely perfunctory, and even defensive.
The message of these speeches to the international community, but most importantly to Israelis and Palestinians, has been clear – Israel is to blame for all, the Palestinians are innocent and righteous victims, and any so-called peace is dependent on Palestinian demands being met absolutely.
In advance of this year’s U.N. meetings, ADL held discussions with U.S. officials tasked with the Middle East peace process and told them that Abbas’ annual speech would be a litmus test. If Mr. Abbas were serious about the recent renewal of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, his speech would provide an excellent opportunity to tell the Palestinian people, the Israeli people and the international community that the Palestinians are committed to peace with Israel, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a partner, and the Palestinians – while asserting their own narrative and nationalism - acknowledge the deep Jewish connection to the land.
We would be listening, we told these officials, for Abbas’ message to be positive and hopeful, and for him to omit his perennial listing of grievances and use of incendiary terms and accusations.
So, when Abbas rose to the General Assembly podium on September 26, what did we hear? The Palestinian president certainly made his case for international support to ameliorate the Palestinian plight. As usual, he blamed Israel for a host of ills, including settlement building, settler “terrorists,” alleged Israeli attacks on Palestinian holy sites in Jerusalem, the failure of peace negotiations, and a listing of the litany of injustices suffered by the Palestinians since the “Nakba.”
There was the same appeal to the international community to urge action to force Israel to change its policies and behavior – and a particularly unhelpful call for international action against settlements. As Khaled Abu Toameh reminded us this week, Abbas’ speech showed that “the Palestinian Authority leadership considers construction of new housing units in settlements and neighborhoods of Jerusalem as being more serious than the displacement of a quarter million Palestinians.”
But there was an element of change in this year’s speech. The affirmation of the Palestinian desire for peace and of Israel as its partner was a focus of the address, not a begrudging add-on. Missing was the incendiary language which peppered his addresses in prior years. Importantly, Abbas asserted the goal of the negotiations to be an agreement which ends the conflict and ends all claims – something his predecessor Yasser Arafat repeatedly failed to do.
At the same time, there was much left unsaid by Abbas which Israelis ache to hear. He uttered no affirmation of the Jewish State of Israel’s right to exist. Indeed, he implied that the creation of Israel in 1948 created a “historic, unprecedented injustice” for the Palestinian people. There was little recognition of Israel’s legitimate security concerns or a call on all – even Hamas – to reject violence and terrorism. The Palestinian president did not address the incitement or the veneration of terrorists so prevalent in Palestinian schools, the media and popular culture. And most problematic, in contrast to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that he is prepared to make “painful compromises” for peace, Abbas mentioned “concessions” only in reference to past action, and gave no indication that Palestinians understand and accept that only difficult concessions and compromises will enable peace.
Bottom line, the Palestinian leader still has much to do to convey the Palestinian commitment to reaching a true peace and acknowledging the State of Israel, its history and its concerns. While Mahmoud Abbas’ speech was an improvement over past displays, the Palestinian President must now demonstrate how his affirmation of peace and partnership will be implemented at the negotiating table.