Why Abbas’ speech pales in comparison to Arafat’s rifle at the UN

Why Abbas’ speech pales in comparison to Arafat’s rifle at the UN
Listening to PA president Mahmoud Abbas' "laughable" speech at the UN, one could not help but reminisce about Yasser Arafat, writes Emad Moussa.
6 min read
07 Oct, 2021
Leader of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Yasser Arafat speaks before the United Nations General Assembly on 13 November, 1974 in New York. [Getty]

"Disappointing" and "laughable" is how many Palestinians viewed Abbas' speech at the UN last week. The hype of anticipation that the Palestinian Authority's (PA) media built before the speech heightened that perception.

As I listened to the speech, I could not help but reminisce about Yasser Arafat, despite all of his personal flaws and, sometimes, ill-thought policies.

In November 1974, wearing the traditional Palestinian headgear (Kuffiyeh) with his gun-belt strapped around his waist, Arafat delivered the PLO’s first speech at the UN General Assembly. Taking his people's grief before the international community, Arafat said, "I have come bearing an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter's rifle in the other."

"Devoid of leverage and power, Arafat stressed, diplomacy was a fruitless exercise"

Very few would disagree that the Palestinian leader rose to the occasion and captured with a short phrase the intimate dynamics of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and statehood. Devoid of leverage and power, Arafat stressed, diplomacy was a fruitless exercise. He saw that Zionist colonialism was a structuralist enterprise, rooted in supremacy and geared toward demographic replacement. Decolonisation, therefore, required a form of violent push-back to stop it from becoming on the coloniser’s terms.

Surely, Abbas' diplomacy-only route has born some fruits, at least in terms of joining international organisations and additional recognition for Palestine worldwide. But when it comes to the struggle for liberation, this route has been an endless series of fiascos; it ignored the historical fact that the natives' non-violent methods don’t necessarily change the violence of the colonial structure.

This is perhaps the dynamic of leverage that sets Abbas apart from Arafat. 

As a bureaucratic administration under colonial rule, the PA's powers are limited to tackling the internal affairs of the local population. It lacks any aspects of sovereignty or the ability to prioritise the national interests of its people without risking the administration's very existence or the interests of its elite.

Realistically, in other words, there are serious limitations to what Abbas can or cannot do. So, to expect a bombshell speech was perhaps too optimistic. Just think of the fact that the Palestinian leader requires Israel's approval to even leave Ramallah, and that his security detail is subject to Israel's scrutiny.

But, the conditions of colonial rule are not omnipotent and the PA's failures are not all Israel's direct doing. Some are self-inflicted.

Since its establishment and especially after the Second Intifada, the PA - under excuses like the rule of law and Oslo security obligations - set on dismantling most forms of meaningful resistance to Israel’s occupation. In so doing, it stripped itself of significant pressure cards.

This is why to hear Abbas deliver an ultimatum - that the PA will withdraw recognition of Israel after one year if Israel failed to pull out from the Occupied Territories - was a reason for deride.

We wondered how whilst lacking sufficient leverage, the PA could follow through, let alone enforce that ultimatum.

To Israel's Defence Minister Benny Gantz Abbas’ ultimatum is "a tall tree that will be hard to climb down from." This is Israel's way of exhibiting full control of the outcome and little consideration of what the PA is capable of doing.

Even if we assume that ending security coordination will be one way to pressure Israel, the PA - so far - appears to lack the will or ability to do so. Remember that the speech came only one month after a high-level meeting between Abbas and Gantz, which only deepened the PA's commitment to security coordination with Israel.

Anchored in the diplomacy-only worldview, Abbas' speech unsurprisingly was not on par with the Palestinians' aspirations, much less reflected their frustration and elevated their sense of injustice.

The speech tone and message sounded and felt like begging, first, of Israel's acceptance to negotiate and withdraw from the Occupied Territories, and, second, of the international community’s intervention and President Biden's acknowledgement.

But, make no mistake, octogenarian Abbas probably has no illusions that his threats to escalate at the International Criminal Court and withdraw recognition of Israel would cause Israel’s leaders to lose sleep. Frustrated by the Biden administration, he’s also aware that those threats are unlikely to sway the US administration past the lip-service for the two-state solution.

More importantly, he cannot deny that the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has a track record of delivering threats and withdrawing them, rather repeatedly, due to logistical reasons or succumbing to international and Arab pressures, as it was the case with the 2020 suspension and - shortly after - resumption of security coordination with Israel.

Those in defence of Abbas' soft approach attribute it to the need for a delicate calculus to handle the highly complex political situation. This might be true to some extent, but the contradiction between beliefs and actions can only mean, among other things, that the PA has no workable plan to break free from the status quo.

"The contradiction between beliefs and actions can only mean, among other things, that the PA has no workable plan to break free from the status quo"

As it stands, Abbas hopes that the regional scene will witness a paradigm shift in the Palestinians' favour. Meanwhile, instead of actively finding a way out of the Oslo entrapment, his government continues or is steered to dig themselves deep into it, becoming more reliant on Israel and the United States. This is not a strategy; rather, the classical definition of insanity.

This leads us to conclude that while apparently directed at the international community, Abbas' speech was also meant to buy time and anaesthetise the Palestinian public's anger by feeding them the illusion of a way forward, a roadmap. After all, he knows that his legitimacy has eroded well beyond repair and that the current model of the Palestinian Authority is unsustainable. A crackdown on dissident Palestinian voices is unlikely to distract from that.

A disappointing as it may be, the speech succeeded in further emphasising the schism between the Palestinian leadership and the people on the ground, and that the people have been, and for so long, two steps ahead of their leadership.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.