The Guardian Reports – (September 2015)
Mahmoud Abbas has said Palestinians will “no longer continue to be bound” by the Oslo accords unless they receive “international protection” from Israel.
Speaking at the UN general assembly in New York, the Palestinian president said the 20-year-old peace agreements needed updating and were not workable if they remained one-sided.
Watched stony-faced by the Israeli delegation led by ambassador Ron Prosor, Abbas on Wednesday called for the international community to recognise Palestine as a state under occupation in the same way that countries were occupied in the second world war.
Describing the situation as “unsustainable”, and with Palestinian patience “at an end”, Abbas also accused Israel of risking turning a political conflict into a religious one over the issue of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque – the focus of recent clashes.
Israeli sources have indicated that Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, will use his own speech before the UN on Thursday to blame problems at the religious site on Palestinian incitement.
Abbas made his speech on the day that the Palestinians raised their flag at the UN for the first time. “In this historical moment, I say to my people everywhere: raise the flag of Palestinians very high because it is the symbol of our identity,” the 80-year-old Abbas told the crowd. “It is a proud day.”
Although Abbas went further in his comments at the UN than many had anticipated – despite saying this month he planned to drop a “bombshell” at the general assembly – it remained unclear whether his threats over the Oslo accords, which Palestinians argue Israel has comprehensively breached, should be taken as a warning or an indication of more imminent moves.
He said: “We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel and Israel must assume fully its responsibilities of an occupying power, because the status quo cannot continue.
“We will start the implementation of this declaration by all peaceful and legal means. Either the Palestinian National Authority will be the conduit of the Palestinian people from occupation to independence, or Israel, the occupying power, must bear all of its responsibilities.”
Abbas added that Israel’s refusal to commit to agreements signed “render us an authority without real powers”.
In his speech, the Palestinian president accused Israel of “repeated, systematic incursions upon al-Aqsa aimed at imposing a new reality”, warning that such actions create an explosive situation. He also rejected comments by Netanyahu regarding renewed talks.
“It is no longer useful to waste time in negotiations for the sake of negotiations; what is required is to mobilise international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation in line with the resolutions of international legitimacy,” Abbas said. “Until then, I call upon the United Nations to provide international protection for the Palestinian people in accordance with international humanitarian law.”
Before his speech, Abbas’s aides had circulated to diplomats a matrix setting the Oslo and subsequent agreements against claimed Israeli violations.
Significantly, however, he did not announce the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority – set up under Oslo – or the cancelling of security cooperation with Israel as some had speculated he would.
Abbas had gone to New York hoping to secure commitments from the US secretary of state, John Kerry, that Washington would breath life into the moribund peace process – guarantees he failed to secure from a US administration distracted elsewhere in the region.
“As long as Israel refuses to cease settlement activities and to the release of the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners in accordance with our agreements, 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,” Abbas said. “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.”
Some view Abbas’s tough talk as an attempt to mask his political weakness. Hopes of setting up a Palestinian state have been derailed, and there have been calls for him to resign and dissolve the Palestinian Authority. Without a specific deadline for taking those steps, Abbas left himself room for diplomatic manoeuvring to refocus the attention of the international community on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Western diplomats who have met him recently report he feels exhausted and isolated and has increasingly lost faith in the viability of a two-state solution.
“Abbas feels he has played the ‘good guy’ and done what the international community has asked of him at every turn and has received nothing to show in return. He feels betrayed and let down,” one Palestinian official told the Guardian.
“He went into his meeting with Kerry [on Saturday] with an open mind to see if there was anything on offer. But failing that the speech is bound to be more pessimistic.”
There has been growing talk in recent months that Abbas, 80, is losing the enthusiasm to continue as president, with his own prestige and legacy badly damaged by the lack of progress on peace talks amid continued Israeli settlement building. That in turn has fuelled a growing crisis in Palestinian politics, with no obvious successor and collapsing confidence in the political leadership represented by his Fatah movement.
The poll last week undertaken by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) suggests two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to step down. It also indicted that the majority of Palestinians no longer believe that a two-state solution is realistic, with showed 57% saying they support a return to an armed intifada in the absence of peace negotiations, up from 49% three months ago.
ThePSR said the figure was similar to numbers seen ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. “If a spark comes along,” pollster Khalil Shikaki said, “there is absolutely no doubt that the Palestinian situation today is very, very fertile for a major eruption.”
The grim assessment comes amid bleak signs from the peace process. Diplomatic sources familiar with the talks say contacts between Israeli and Palestinian officials in Cairo and Amman in recent months showed no signs of any movement, with Israel reportedly signalling that despite recent remarks by Netanyahu that he was open to bilateral contacts with Abbas, there was no enthusiasm in his rightwing government for negotiations.
A Palestinian request to talk about borders, say Palestinian officials, was also rebuffed.
Despite some symbolic successes, efforts by Abbas to internationalise the Palestinians’ incremental push for statehood among global institutions have recently run into the sand at the UN, despite some.
Domestically, too, he appears constrained in his room for manoeuvre, not least in the oft-repeated threat to either end security cooperation with Israel – largely aimed at Hamas on the West Bank – or nullify the Oslo accords.
In reality, as officials point out, the Palestinian Authority is the largest employer in the West Bank supported by large amounts of foreign aid, which has long benefitted the political class around Abbas.
“Abbas is not going to dissolve the Palestinian Authority because there is an internal interest in maintaining it, the privileges, the international pressure and the international money,” said Ali Jerbawi, a former Palestinian cabinet minister.