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In New York, Mahmoud Abbas gives weak rhetoric about freedom

Before his address at the UN General Assembly in New York, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a short speech at the Cooper Union, a university in downtown Manhattan, at an event sponsored by Churches for Middle East Peace. While some of the pre-event fury was led by pro-Israel students who believed that the mere presence of a Palestinian representative was somehow an affront to Jewish people, a number of locals decided to picket the event for other reasons. A group of locals gathered to call upon Mahmoud Abbas to end his complicity and collaboration with the State of Israel (disclosure: this writer was among them). Gathering outside the Cooper Union, a small group of student and community activists held signs demanding that Abbas respect the rights of Palestinian refugees, abolish the Palestinian Authority for its collaboration with Israel, and send Israeli officials to the International Criminal Court.

The speech itself was tepid. Although Abbas pandered to the crowd by mentioning America's long and diverse social justice history, condemning the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other popular media targets, and speaking vaguely of "women's rights", the content of his speech on Palestine was typical of Palestinian Authority officials. Namely, it wove chaotically between collaborating with "the peaceful State of Israel" and condemning "the occupiers". As Palestinian Authority officials continue to feel the pressure of a public that largely views them negatively relative to those who actively resist the Israeli occupation, all the while Israel increasingly sees the Palestinian Authority as diplomatically uncooperative, Palestinian Authority leaders are now forced to pander to contradicting sentiments.

Throughout his speech, Abbas spoke of the need to recognise the State of Israel, even while discussing how the Palestinian Nakba ["catastrophe", referring to expulsion of Palestinians by nascent Israel in 1948] continues. He spoke of the need for America not to let its friend, Israel, "drive drunk" – while ignoring his own government's history of violent security collaboration with Israel. He slammed the building of Israeli settlements – with no mention of his decisions to cede virtually all of East Jerusalem along with major illegal Israeli settlement blocs to Israel, deals that were only thwarted by Israeli rejectionism. And he spoke of accountability for Israeli violence in Gaza and the West Bank under international treaties – while refusing to call for Israeli officials to be tried at the International Criminal Court. Indeed, after a series of fumbled remarks about the need for the Palestinian observer state to join international treaties, he then proffered that he would call to restart negotiations with Israel at the UN General Assembly. Palestinian Authority officials have refused to hold Israeli officials accountable at The Hague.

Perhaps most insultingly, Abbas emphasised his hope in American youths by pointing to the creation of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and J-Street. While chapters of the former organisation organise boycotts of companies complicit in Israeli war crimes, demand the end of "normalisation" with Israel, and campaign against Israeli occupation, apartheid and discrimination against refugees, the latter student group has repeatedly sought to thwart boycotts, describes itself as a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" group, and behaves as a counter-weight to activism seeking to pressure Israel. Through every such contradiction, we witness a leader that seeks to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of both the occupier and the occupied.

In my view, Abbas's most telling comments were about Seeds of Peace. Seeds of Peace is an American initiative begun in the wake of the Oslo Accords to bring together Palestinian and Israeli youths for a summer of "peace-building" activity. In New York, the campers learn of the importance of peace, dialogue and other such values. But the campers do little to challenge the actually existing institutions in Israel and Palestine that continue to keep millions under occupation; instead, the programme whitewashes this inequality by taking youths out the context of occupation and placing them on equal footing in an American youth camp. Like the Oslo Accords and the Palestinian Authority itself, the camp provides the image of progress, peace, and Palestinian equality – while removing the pressure of international or domestic opposition demanding human rights as a prerequisite for engagement.

Millions of dollars have poured into the peace-building industry and similar kinds of "normalisation" activity that essentially removes pressure from the Israeli occupation by suggesting the problem is purely cultural or personal, rather than institutional and systemic. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority is, in that sense, a more violent version of "Seeds of Peace". As Israel expands its settlement colonies in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, carries out massacres in Gaza, and continues to deprive millions of refugees of their right to return, the Palestinian Authority's answer, then and now, is to continue negotiating with the occupier with only the aura of equal footing.

There is no doubt that there have been times and instances during which Abbas has not gone along with Israel's demands – agreeing to a unity deal with Hamas and applying for limited Palestinian statehood at the United Nations being two such instances. But those times are exceptional times of pressure, during which Abbas' legitimacy needed saving. That alone is why supporters of Palestine should pressure Abbas, rather than cheering him on, during his engagements with Israel. Indeed, that appears to be what much of Palestinian society continues to do.

Upon leaving the event, I noticed that the demonstrators demanding that Abbas hold Israel accountable had been replaced with a group of pro-Israel demonstrators. Focusing on the rhyming, they chanted, "Hamas adores Abbas! Abbas adores Hamas!" While it is true that both Abbas and Hamas entered into a unity deal prior to the mass destruction that Israel wrought on Gaza, the deal did not show a love affair between Abbas and Hamas. Rather, it likely demonstrated that both factions were weak and were forced to compromise on key aspects of their platforms in order to maintain relevance in Palestine.

But what struck me about the chanting, like the other pro-Israel students, was that even those who collaborate with Israel, emphasise toothless initiatives like "Seeds of Peace" and speak of praying with Shimon Peres and the Pope, are still too much. Behind the scenes, such people claim, Abbas and his primary political rival, the resistance faction that refuses to negotiate with the state that has them under occupation, are actually allies. It appears that for them, like the Israeli government, no amount of Palestinian submission is ever enough; even hinting at accountability, autonomy, or bringing resistance groups into the fold of diplomacy is too much. Perhaps that is why supporters of Palestine should cease to see hope in the two-faced comments of Palestinian Authority leaders. Like the social movements Abbas shamelessly referenced in his speech – abolitionism, feminism, indigenous rights, civil rights, and the anti-Apartheid movement – progress will not come from collaboration, it will come from political resistance.

Amith Gupta is a US-based Palestine solidarity activist. He is a law student at NYU.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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