Abbas’s ‘Bombshell’

By Elliott Abrams

Weekly Standard

September 30, 2015

The speech was mostly a rehash of tired complaints about Israel, some of them linked to reality (occupation is never popular) and others entirely manufactured and irresponsible.

Abbas’s low point came right at the beginning of the speech, when he accused Israel of various crimes defiling the Temple Mount. He said Israel is trying “to impose its plans to undermine the Islamic and Christian sanctuaries in Jerusalem, particularly its actions at Al-Aqsa Mosque.” This is a lie, and given the violence around the Temple Mount in recent weeks it is the kind of lie that can create injuries and loss of life.

Abbas continues to say that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are swallowing it up, which is simply false: the settlements are growing in population but not expanding territorially. As to Gaza, he said Israel “continues its blockade of the Gaza Strip.”  But his listeners surely know that it is Egypt that is maintaining a strict blockade, while Israel supplies the vast bulk of food, water, and electricity to Gaza. Abbas’s claim that the PA is “working on spreading the culture of peace and coexistence” is remarkable in view of the repeated glorification of terrorist murderers in school books and the naming of parks and schools after them. A moment of humor, unintentional to be sure, arrived when Abbas said “we seek to hold presidential and legislative elections.” Elected in 2005, he is now in the eleventh year of his own four year term and has shown zero desire to submit himself to the polls again.

As to recent history, Abbas said, “You are all aware that Israel undermined the efforts made by the administration of President Barack Obama in past years, most recently the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry aimed at reaching a peace agreement through negotiations.” Obama administration officials have revealed that when the crunch came in its efforts to start negotiations, Netanyahu said yes and Abbas said no. It is therefore entirely false to make the claim he did in this speech.

In previous speeches Abbas insisted that he wanted nothing more than real negotiations, though he would then set preconditions that made negotiations nearly impossible. This year, his “bombshell” was a threat to stop negotiating at all. Blaming Israel for the failure of negotiations is of course ahistorical: not only did Abbas say no to Obama, but he also said no to Ehud Olmert’s generous offer in 2008—as Yasser Arafat did to Ehud Barak’s in 2000. But never mind: now the Abbas line is that Israel is violating its Oslo commitments. So, “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.”

That’s the bombshell part, but what does it mean? Most likely, not much. Logically, he should have said in the next paragraph that he was resigning as head of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, disbanding the PA, and closing every Palestinian ministry and government office. He should have announced that all security and economic cooperation with Israel was ending. He did not. Nathan Thrall, a keen observer who is head of the International Crisis Group’s Jerusalem office, told the New York Times that Abbas’s line was “a years-old talking point,” “old, old, old, old news,” and “definitely not a bombshell.” Thrall continued: “That is the minimum he could have said. They’ve been saying it for weeks and years: we fulfill our obligations and they don’t fulfill theirs, and we’re not bound by it if they don’t fulfill theirs and the whole thing. I really doubt that there’s something you could really point to that’s novel here, and more important than that, I’m certain that it does not mean any changes practically on the ground.”

Why does Abbas talk himself into a corner this way, where any real or rhetorical bombs that go off are likely to injure him and his own people? Frustration, in part; politics, in part, and the desire to say something that sounds “tough.” And in part, sadly, cynicism: he knows as well or better than we—and his Palestinian listeners—do that these are just more words in yet another UN speech.