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Markaz

Abbas’ UN speech: What it means and what it doesn’t

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had promised a “bombshell” during his speech before the U.N. General Assembly, and judging by much of the coverage, he seems to have succeeded. A closer look at Abbas’ speech, as well as his own political behavior, suggests something much less explosive, however. To gauge the significance of Abbas’ announcement, it is important to understand what Abbas did and did not say in his speech, the relevant portions of which are excerpted below:

Thus, we declare that as long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers, and as long as Israel refuses to cease settlement activities and to release of the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners in accordance with our agreements, they leave us no choice but to insist that we will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements, while Israel continuously violates them.

We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and that Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power, because the status quo cannot continue and the decisions of the Palestinian Central Council last March are specific and binding.

Abbas clearly did not say that he was renouncing or abrogating the Oslo Accords. What he did say is that, going forward, the Palestinians would be no more bound by the agreements than Israel has been thus far. Exactly what this might entail in practical terms, or what it may mean for Israel to “assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power,” however, Abbas leaves to our individual and collective imaginations.

Abbas’ language was fairly ambiguous and conditional (“as long as,cannot continue” versus will not, etc.), and could be interpreted as indicating an intention to end security cooperation with Israel, dissolve the Palestinian Authority (PA), or neither of these. While most Palestinians would welcome an end to the PA’s security coordination with Israel, which they view as enhancing the security of Israelis at the expense of their own, Abbas himself has described the commitment as “sacred.” 

Thus, for the time being, it is unlikely that Abbas will move to cancel security cooperation with Israel or other arrangements that he considers to be in the Palestinian interest—such as the Paris Protocol, which governs economic relations between the two sides. On the other hand, Abbas deliberately leaves the door open to such an abrogation, perhaps later down the road. Indeed, if there is one reference in Abbas’ speech that ought to give Israeli and American policymakers pause, it is his description of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Central Council’s decision (which resolved to “end all forms of security coordination with Israel” last March) as “specific and binding.”

So why would Abbas choose to make a bold proclamation that (at least for the moment) he does not intend to carry out? The speech was directed at two audiences, the first and most important being the Palestinian public, which according to recent polls has reached unprecedented levels of frustration with Abbas’ leadership. Abbas hopes that the strong language of the speech (e.g., references to Jerusalem and describing Israeli measures as “terrorism” and “apartheid”) coupled with symbolic gestures such as the raising of the Palestinian flag at U.N. headquarters in New York, will help shore up his sagging popularity and waning legitimacy—or at least win him some time until something better comes along.

Abbas, in effect, is warning American and Israeli policymakers not of what he intends to do but what he could do, if credible steps are not taken toward establishing a Palestinian state.

Secondarily, Abbas is sending a message to the international community, principally the United States and Israel. With the issue of Palestine overshadowed by other concerns like the Islamic State, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the Iran nuclear deal, Abbas must seize any opportunity he can to put the issue back on the regional and international agendas. Moreover, the Palestinian leader is signaling to both the Israelis and the Americans that he is not without options and that he, too, has leverage at his disposal. Abbas, in effect, is warning American and Israeli policymakers not of what he intends to do but what he could do, if credible steps are not taken toward establishing a Palestinian state.

Whether Abbas is prepared to follow through on that threat or use his newly acquired leverage effectively, however, is another matter. After all, this is not the first time Abbas has announced what looks like a bold, strategic step, only to drag the process out over several years (like his 2012 U.N. statehood bid) or bury it in bureaucratic procedure (like his recent decision to join the International Criminal Court). On the other hand, the aging and beleaguered Abbas is running out of options, and he could find that he has painted himself into a corner. While Abbas may not be prepared to declare Oslo null and void just yet, by simply alluding to that possibility in the manner and forum in which he did, he risks making such an outcome inevitable.

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