It Matters Little What Abbas Says

By Tariq Shadid

It has not gone unnoticed that Palestinians are showing little interest in Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the United Nations, which he held on the 27th of September. Most Palestinians have no idea what he said, and do not care to know it. There is quite a contrast between the amount of attention given by Palestinians to this speech, and to the one that he held last year. The explanation for this is really quite simple, especially if the situation is summarized by highlighting a few of its most important aspects.

First of all, the Palestinians are aware that this speech is an attempt to salvage some part of what he failed to obtain with his previous UN bid. Last year, the Palestinian Authority tried to obtain full statehood. Now, even though some news outlets still are using the term ‘statehood bid’ in their headlines, Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN in the hope of obtaining "non-member state" status in the United Nations – a large step back from last year.

Abbas should not be surprised at the lack of Palestinian interest for this activity. If you ask for something first, and ask for something smaller the next time around when you don’t receive it, the message you send to the international community and to your own people is barely anything more than the fact that you are willing to settle for less. Settling for less than something that was already not enough in the first place doesn’t win you the full support of your people, nor the respect of the international community. It creates the impression that you will go on settling for less until you are willing to accept the fact that you will not be given anything.

Welcome to the geopolitical dynamics of power, a lesson apparently not even learned after the 19th-year anniversary of the Oslo accords. The Palestinian Authority decided to settle for less than what the Palestinians are entitled to, and ended up losing more than they would have if no accords had been signed. Once you start giving without taking, apparently that is all you will keep doing.

Secondly, there is the issue of representation. Who exactly is Mahmoud Abbas speaking for? To the outside world, the Palestinian Authority is seen as the official representation of the Palestinian people on the stage of the international community. One should ask oneself however: does it represent, or even claim to represent, all Palestinians? Historically, all Palestinians have been represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but ever since the Oslo accords, much confusion has been caused by the creation of the ‘Palestinian Authority’. With the physical separation of one people into so many ‘brands’ of Palestinians, should a Palestinian from Gaza feel that Mahmoud Abbas represents him? What about a Palestinian who lives in ’48 occupied Palestine and holds second rate Israeli ‘citizenship’? What about the millions of Palestinians in refugee camps, scattered across the Middle East? What about the millions of Palestinians who, forced by the course of history, hold citizenship of so many different countries in the world?

From the Palestinian historical and popular perspective, all these mentioned above are Palestinians. From the American-European-Israeli imposed perspective, it is desirable that ‘Palestinians’ are only considered to be those who either are living in the West Bank or in Gaza, in blatant disregard of the fact that those who do not live there are mostly in that position as a result of forced displacement. Given this confusing situation, it is imperative that Mahmoud Abbas decides who it is exactly that he is representing. It goes without saying that from a Palestinian perspective, a true Palestinian leader must protect the interests of all Palestinians worldwide, including the occupied, the displaced, and the expatriates.

Thirdly, there is the issue of statehood itself. How is it possible for Palestinians who live in the occupied territories to feel that they have a true Palestinian government, if daily life is still confronting them with the Israeli occupation in a very direct manner, when it comes to issues that go beyond anything that is purely administrative? Who is really the government, if Israeli soldiers can enter any home in any place in the West Bank at will, and at any time they please to do so? This is happening on a daily basis, but it would even undermine that so-called ‘government status’ if it happened only once a year. Where is that so-called ‘Authority’ when Jewish settlers rampage into Palestinian lands and homes, with their violence and destruction? Again, we are not talking about incidents, but about things that are occurring every day.

In this context, it is important to heed the call issued by leaders from within the Palestinian community on the 19th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo accords, on September 13th. These leaders called for ‘liberation’ from the Oslo agreements, and they even included a statement from Fatah leader Mahmoud al-Aloul to abolish these agreements. The same demand was issued by prominent figures like Mustafa Barghouti and the leadership of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). These sounds from the Palestinian community are far from new, but the urgency of the call has clearly increased, as well as the wordings. They amount to a demand to disengage from all agreements with ‘Israel’, an end to the PA’s security coordination with ‘Israel’, and the implementation of national unity.

The lamentations uttered on that same day by Saeb Erakat,  representative of the Palestinian Authority, express his frustration: "The interim agreements were supposed to last for five years. But what we see two decades later is apartheid rather than freedom and independence."

If the expression of frustration is all that the Palestinian Authority can do for the Palestinian people, and if any action that might change the situation is either postponed or opposed, it only serves to underline the meaninglessness of this administrative apparatus. To take this hazy ‘governmental’ structure to the United Nations and request it to be recognized as a state can hardly be felt as meaningful to any Palestinian, given its ineffectiveness. The onus is upon the leadership of the Palestinian Authority to prove to the Palestinian people that it is more than an extension of Israeli control over the West Bank that serves to enable the occupation in daily life, while denouncing it in words at the same time. 

Mahmoud Abbas’s latest United Nations speech, if anything, underlines the urgency and hopelessness of today’s Palestinian situation. Regardless of what he said in the speech, the simple fact that he was there holding it illustrates how complex and messy the situation is. Of course, a Palestinian will take note of this, and shrug his shoulders. Apparently, this is his representation in the World Community. Apparently, this is as far as diplomacy can take the Palestinian people in their aspirations for liberty and justice. Apparently, all we can expect is more of the same useless talk, and more lack of action. This is why it matters so little what Mahmoud Abbas has to say.
– Tariq Shadid is a Palestinian surgeon living in the Middle East, and has written numerous essays about the Palestinian issue over the years. He contributed this article to

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