Mahmoud Abbas outlined a vision for an independent Palestine that hewed to the two-state formula but also revived rhetoric that hearkened back to an era of Palestinian belligerence.
Shortly after concluding his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Friday, the Palestinian Authority president was followed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who laid out a very different vision of the two-state solution that underscored the depth of the gulf between the two leaders.
While Netanyahu spoke of the need for Israel to maintain a “long-term Israeli military presence in the West Bank,” Abbas argued that the Palestinians had already made their compromises.
“We agree to establish the state of Palestine on only 22 percent of historical Palestine on all of the territories of Palestine occupied by Israel in 1967,” Abbas said. He added, “Our efforts are not aimed at isolating Israel or delegitimizing it, we only aim to delegitimize the settlement activity.”
Abbas’ emphatic endorsement of two states, and his repeated calls for peaceful support from Palestinians who were watching him were signals that he was still committed to the two-state solution. “I do not believe anyone of conscience can reject our application for full membership in the United Nations and our admission as a member state,” he said.
But Abbas also had harsh rhetoric for the Israelis, accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” targeting Palestinians for assassination, strengthening its “racist annexation wall” and carrying out excavations that, he alleged, threaten Islamic holy places.
Abbas repeatedly invoked 63 years of “Nakba,” or catastrophe, and repeated his commitment to unity with Hamas, a terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction. He made reference to Muslim and Christian ties to the holy land—the site of Jesus’ birth and where Muslims believed Muhammed ascended to the heavens—but omitted any reference to Jewish claims.
For his part, Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of racism and ethnic cleansing in their call for a state with no Jewish settlers—“Judenrein,” in Netanyahu’s words, using the Nazi-era term.
“That’s ethnic cleansing,” he said.
He accused the Palestinians of wanting statehood but not peace. “The truth is, so far the Palestinians have refused to negotiate,” he said. “The truth is the Palestinians want a state without peace.”
While Abbas called for a timeline for peace negotiations culminating in an agreement—but did not set one out himself. That, and his commitment to prior agreements with Israel, seemed to be aimed at assuaging Israeli and U.S. concerns that he would follow up the application with unilateral actions. Israel and the United States have emphatically opposed the Palestinians’ statehood recognition bid at the U.N.
But if Abbas’ bottom line was aimed at pushing back against charges that he was acting unilaterally, his rhetoric was bound to raise hackles—and seemingly did, given the walkouts by at least two members of the Israeli delegations, Cabinet ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Yuli Edelstein, and the refusal to applaud by Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy.
After the speech, Rice Tweeted: “When the speeches end today, we must all recognize that the only way to create a state is through direct negotiations. No shortcuts.”
Abbas also invoked, to vigorous applause, his predecessor Yasser Arafat’s 1974 appearance before the same body. He cited Arafat’s raising of an olive branch on that occasion, saying it was still held out—but did not mention the gun Arafat wore, against U.N. regulations and at his insistence. That pistol disgusted the United States and Israel at the time, and for years helped define Arafat in the West not as a man of peace, but as a bloody-minded posturer.
Netanyahu called on Mahmoud Abbas to launch talks immediately in New York and said he was ready to “move ahead” with U.S.-backed parameters.
“I extend my hand, the hand of Israel in peace—I hope you will grasp that,” Netanyahu said. “If we genuinely want peace, let us meet in this building.”
Abbas had reiterated in his speech his precondition that Israel freeze all settlement building.
It was the first time Netanyahu publicly suggested that he was ready to negotiate on the basis of parameters President Obama laid out in a speech in May; at the time, Netanyahu had objected vigorously to Obama’s call for negotiations based in 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps.
“There were things in the ideas” Obama proposed “about borders that I didn’t like, there were things about the Jewish state that I’m sure the Palestinians didn’t like,” Netanyahu said. “For all my reservations, I was willing to move ahead.”
Netanyahu reportedly has in recent weeks privately told American interlocutors he is willing to work with Obama’s parameters.