Mahmoud Abbas: the Second Coming

One could be forgiven for thinking de facto President Mahmoud Abbas seemed like the second coming since Jesus of Nazareth not only by the reception he was given at the UN General Assembly when he spoke there on Friday but by the reaction throughout his speech from crowds amassed in West Bank cities.

Abbas’ speech, calling for admission of Palestine as a full member state of the United Nations, was surprising in that it was unusually strongly worded and lacked the usual skirting of core issues regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Characteristically, Abbas’ public addresses to audiences reflect the interests of the Palestine Authority (PA) and not of the Palestinian people, highlighting the importance of negotiations with Israel to achieve any lasting peace agreement as the sole tactic, effectively undermining resistance in all of its forms to the occupying regime.

At the UN, Abbas used terms like “ethnic cleasning”,“al-Nakba”, “apartheid policies” and “racist annexation Wall”. To the short-sighted and the outsider, the speech was indeed befitting of being a historical platform to voice the issue of Palestine. It encapsulated the suffering the Palestinians have endured for 63 years, from the horrors of their ethnic cleansing in 1948 to the unbearable life under the continuous settlement building which aids the apartheid and racist policies that are inherent in every aspect of Palestinians’ lives.

The speech also mentioned Gaza, which is still suffering under siege and from air raids that account for extra-judicial killings. It was a perfect speech, succinctly and without being overly garrulous capturing Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and making Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech sound like the incessant whining of a spoiled kid.

Or was it? The stalwart speech certainly diverted some of the initial skeptical views on the PA’s bid for statehood. For the indifferent, it won their support, and for those opposed it either strengthened their opposition or cracked their resolve. Talk now isn’t about whether the UN bid for statehood is detrimental or beneficial; it has now come to optimistic discussions of what this bid could do for Palestinians.

The argument is now about how the “internationalization” of the Palestine/Israel conflict is a good thing because it is rarely that the world fixes its attention on this small country except when there is bloodshed and misery, and this attention can now be channeled into genuine support for an end to the Israeli occupation.

A very good speech”

Issa Amer, the director of the Hebron based Youth Against Settlements, was animatedly expressing his approval of Abbas’ speech in between sips of mint tea.

“It was a very good speech,” he told me. “He [Abbas] didn’t leave anything out. He talked about the Nakba, the Naksa, the prisoners, the settlements…it was a speech that was comprehensive of what every Palestinian wanted to hear.”

I asked him about the reaction of the people who had gathered in Hebron’s city center to watch the speech on a large screen. Mainstream media focused their attention primarily on the reaction in Ramallah, where jubilant crowds were celebrating as if they had already been granted statehood.

“The mood was positive. You know, people in Hebron are mostly Hamas supporters, but they were smiling throughout the speech. Thousands of people were present, which is something very rare in Hebron since we barely have large protests or gatherings.”

I pointed out that the proposed statehood bid was based on the 1967 borders, and that partitioning the land wasn’t going to work in the interests of most Palestinians.

Amer looked at me solemnly. “Listen, you think we’re ever going to forget about Haifa and Yafa? Of course not! But first, we have to gather what we have and then work toward regaining the rest.”

A risky approach

Settling for a two-state solution, no matter how temporary, has drastic consequences. Under the title of “State,” Palestine can be attacked by Israel not as an occupied territory (which carries its own legal implications as the Geneva Convention clearly stipulates that the occupier must protect the occupied), but as an equal.

But this is all theoretical of course. The West Bank and Gaza will not be granted statehood as the US president, with re-elections on the horizion, vowed to veto it. In the midst of renewed blind faith in the bid, Palestinians have forgotten or simply ignored the question of the PA’s legitimacy in carrying out such an act.

Legal expert Professor Guy Goodwin clearly pointed out that the PA is a “subsidiary body meaning it cannot break away from the parent body [the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)], assume greater powers, or establish itself independently from the PNC[Palestinian National Council]. It is only competent to carry out powers conferred to it by PNC.”

The PA’s control is restricted as it has “limited legislative and executive competence, territorial jurisdiction and limited personal jurisdiction over Palestinians not present in areas it is allocated accordingly.” The problem of representation, in which the six million Palestinian refugees in the diaspora could lose if the PLO, recognized and toted as the sole legitimate representative body for Palestinians everywhere (the diaspora, the 1967 occupied territories, the Palestinians living in the 1948 areas) wasn’t such a big deal anymore as Mahmoud Abbas graciously received standing ovations.

Abbas “never popular”

Mahmoud Abbas was never popular with the Palestinian people. Even before his presidency and during his tenure as Prime Minister, the late PA chairman Yassir Arafat was open about his suspicions of Abbas, accusing him of “betraying the interests of the Palestinian people.” Arafat’s associates added to the suspicions by pointing the finger at Abbas, saying he conspired with Israel to keep Arafat under siege in Ramallah during 2002.

It’s not just his lack of charisma either. Abbas never bothered to conceal his frank collaboration with Israel. Whether it was acquiring the services of the Israeli Shin Bet security forces to travel around the West Bank, or having previous knoweldge of andsupporting Operation Cast Lead, or calling on Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit whilst neglecting to mention or at the very least equating Shalit with the eight thousand Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails.

Nor has Abbas been shy about coordinating security efforts with Israel under the guise of avoiding Palestinian confrontations which could end up in violence but which in reality serve the Israeli settlers’ interests more and simultaneously undermines unarmed popular resistance.

Most importantly there were the leaked Palestine Papers, which exposed the length Abbas and the rest of the unelected PAnegotiating team were willing to concede the rights of the Palestinians, specifically the Right of Return, and the lands given away for the same “horrific picture of the settlement campaign” he articulated in his speech.

For all these reasons, the Palestinian street never thought much of Abbas where he paled in comparison with the inflated symbolism of Yassir Arafat. With his “historic speech” Abbas may satisfy himself with the knowledge that he has crept up the ladder of icons, cementing his legacy as the (autocrat) who laid the application for a Palestinian statehood at the UN’s feet.

The negotiations between the PA and Israel did not start last year in September. That was the timeline given in Abbas’ speech. No, the negotiations have been going on for almost two decades, and while it is nothing short of absurd for Israel and the Quartet, specifically the outraged US, to self-righteously lecture on, nay demand a return to negotiations as the only way to reach a peace settlement, they can rest assured that that it is what Abbas had in mind the whole time.

He wants to use the tactic of going to the UN as leverage that would put the ball in his court once he restarts negotiations, something he has promised to do over and over. Nelson Mandela once said that “only free men can negotiate” and these failed talks between the PA and Israel which have come at the expense of Palestinians and the increasing loss of their rights only give the illusion to the outside world that the relationship is between two partners, two equals, not the occupier and the occupied.

Enthusiasm without analysis

The supporters present at the Muqata’a compound in Ramallah today were bused in from the surrounding villages, most of which support Abbas’ Fatah faction, and other parts of the West Bank. They are lacking in knowledge of the implications and consequences of the PA’s UN bid for statehood, and have become desensitized to the situation on the ground which translates into a positive reaction at face value regarding the subject of Palestine receiving international attention.

This much was clear from my interviews with a number of people representing different aspects of society in Ramallah. They all wanted a state on the 1967 lines, “to be accepted as a country like the rest of the countries in the world”. When asked about the refugees from the 1948 areas (the parts of Palestine on which Israel was established in 1948), they reiterated that no state would be meaningful if the Right of Return was not implemented. When I pointed out this contradiction, most were confused.

Issa Amer indicated that the issue now is trusting the PA. Given its history of corruption and collaboration, this seemed a bit naïve. I believe in a one secular state for all, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. That however, is kryptonite to Zionism whose adherents sees the conflict not as a war or religions, as it slyly paints, but rather as battle of demography over geography.

A long way to go, but hope remains

Accepting the millions of refugees back into Palestine on a human rights approach would mean that the Israeli Jews would become a minority, and fuel the hysterical hasbara notion of “driving the Jews into the sea.” Yet we have a long way to go. The only Israelis who are not morally horrified by a one state solution where Palestinians are treated as equals and where none of this Jewish superiority based on Messianic revelations exists are the anarchists, those completely against the system.

Still, hope remains. The whole UN statehood drama could provide an opening for the Boycott, Divesment, and Sanctions movement to grow even more and become more popular, as it seeks to end Israel’s impunity and hold it accountable for all of its atrocities committed against the Palestinians ever since the months leading up to Israel’s independence.

It is a grassroots movement, similar to the one in Apartheid South Africa, and along with supporting the unarmed popular resistance, the steps for achieving peace, justice and equality in the country become even closer.

September 26, 2011, Electronic Intifada
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