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.
“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,” the Palestinian Authority president told the United Nations General Assembly shortly after handing his application for statehood recognition to the U.N. secretary-general. “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 for two people, 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 reserved harsh rhetoric for the Israelis, accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” targeting Palestinian civilians for assassination, strengthening its “racist annexation wall,” and carrying out excavations that 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 Mohammed’s ascension to the heavens and Jesus’ birth—but omitted any reference to Jewish claims.
While Abbas called for a timeline for peace negotiations culminating in statehood—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 statehood recognition bid.
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.
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.