Palestinian Authority leader and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Mahmoud Abbas addressed the U.N. General Assembly for the 14th time on Sept. 27.
Among Palestinians, expectations had been high that Abbas’s speech at the United Nations would be “historic,” and that he would articulate a new strategic path forward for Palestinians in the wake of the Trump administration’s near-total adoption of Israel’s positions, namely moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, cutting all funding to UNRWA, the U.N. agency responsible for the well-being of Palestinian refugees, and closing the PLO diplomatic mission in the United States.
Yet once again, Abbas failed to deliver. His “historic” speech turned out to be more of the same: a call for the world to salvage a two-state solution that died years ago, systematically destroyed by Israel as a result of its relentless construction on Palestinian land of settlements deemed illegal by the United Nations.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, which launched peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Sold to Palestinians as a short-term process that would end in 1999 with our freedom, the negotiations process, which Abbas oversaw and championed in 1993, has worsened, not improved, Palestinian lives and prospects. For example, in 1993, there were an estimated 250,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem; today, that number exceeds 700,000. As Palestinians are effectively imprisoned behind Israeli military checkpoints and walls, the Palestinian economy is now entirely dependent on outside sources, namely international donors.
Palestinian poverty has dramatically increased since 1993. In the Gaza Strip, data shows that the average child under the age of 11 has not only experienced three military conflicts, but has never seen a day without electricity blackouts or exposure to contaminated water. Palestinians in the West Bank dream of seeing the sea while those in Gaza dream of visiting Jerusalem—all denied because of Israel’s restrictions on their freedom of movement. Yet Abbas continues to insist that peace negotiations with Israel are the only path to liberation, even though they have proven time and again to be the path to our further subjugation.
Equally alarming, Abbas continued to push in his U.N. speech for international recognition of a Palestinian state. In Abbas’s mind, pressing for statehood will improve his position in negotiations; he believes that this will allow Palestinians to negotiate over what their state will look like, instead of being forced to negotiate over statehood itself.
To many, this may sound reasonable. Why should the world not recognize Palestine so that Israel will eventually be forced to do the same? Indeed, some will argue that this approach has proved fruitful. Abbas embarked on his recognition initiative seven years ago and since then, 137 U.N. member states have recognized Palestine as a sovereign state, and the United Nations has upgraded it to the status of non-member observer state.
Despite all this, the number of countries that recognize Palestinian rights remains unchanged. Even if Abbas were successful in getting most of the world’s countries to recognize Palestinian sovereignty, this would not alter the lived reality for most Palestinians. The real problem is not a lack of recognition, it is that the world has failed to hold Israel sufficiently accountable for denying us our freedom.
For five decades, as Israel has built and expanded settlements, the world has done little more than issue empty condemnations declaring how “unhelpful” Israel’s actions are to achieving a two-state solution. Israel has not faced meaningful sanctions, it is recognized in international forums and Israel’s leaders have not been shunned, although they should be. Rather, largely as a result of Abbas’s dual demands—recognition and negotiation—Israel continues to reap the benefits of seeking peace while sowing the seeds of its own version of apartheid.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have made it abundantly clear that they will not allow Palestinians to enjoy freedom or self-determination as long as they are in power. And with the recent passage of the nation-state law, which enshrines in Israeli law Jewish supremacy over Arab citizens of the state, the government has made it clear that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship will not see equality either.
Instead of pushing for the same failed strategy that he has advocated for a quarter of a century, Abbas should instead have pushed for change. With the Trump administration firmly on side with Israel, and with the vast majority of Palestinians no longer supporting the negotiation process, it is past time for bold moves by Abbas: to make it clear that our rights are not negotiable; to promote support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; to push to hold Israel accountable; and to make it clear that Palestinians will press for equality.
That would have been a truly historic and visionary speech. Unfortunately, Abbas is not a visionary, and he, like his speeches, will soon be relegated to history.
Diana Buttu is a lawyer and a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
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