(February 20, 2018 / JNS) Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas took to the international stage on Tuesday to call for a conference to advance peace efforts amid a falling out between the Palestinians and the Trump administration.
“We call for the convening of an international peace conference in mid-2018, based on international law and relevant U.N. resolutions, with broad international participation including the two concerned parties, and the regional and international stakeholders,” Abbas said in a 30-minute-long speech to the U.N. Security Council.
Abbas’s speech comes amid ongoing tensions between the Palestinians and Washington that stem from President Donald Trump’s announcement in early December that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. As a result of the move, Abbas has said he no longer considers the United States to be an “honest broker” in Mideast peace and has called for an alternative to the U.S.-led process.
“It has become impossible today for one country or state alone to solve a regional or international conflict,” he said. “It is essential to establish a multilateral international mechanism emanating from an international conference.”
The P.A. leader also took aim at the Trump administration’s threats to cut off aid to the Palestinians. He additionally cited the administration’s decision to slash funding for UNRWA—the U.N. agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, which he said the United States “helped establish”—while criticizing Trump for threatening to shutter the Palestine Liberation Organization’s offices in Washington, D.C.
He added that Palestinians would step up efforts for full membership at the United Nations.
“We will come to this council. We were rejected last time,” stated Abbas. But “we will come again and call for” full membership.
Grant Rumley, a research fellow and expert on Palestinian politics at the Foundation For Defense of Democracies, told JNS that he believes this was a legacy speech for Abbas.
“Abbas wanted to put down his final positions and then, when they’re inevitably not met, he can walk away without being viewed as compromising too much. At this point, I think he cares more about what his presidency doesn’t create–i.e., compromises on issues like Jerusalem–than what it does,” he said.
Rumley noted that Abbas’s call for a multilateral mechanism for the peace process is also not something new. “For years, the Palestinian leadership has viewed the international arena as an area of strength, and Abbas has sought to get them move involved in a way that creates leverage vis à vis Israel. In the past, that may have been marginally successful, such as when their status at the U.N. General Assembly was upgraded or when they joined the ICC [International Criminal Court].”
Nevertheless, he believes that the international community harbors no aspirations to take on the mantle of Middle East peace, and that the role of the United States will remain in place.
“I think there is little appetite for other countries to step forward in the way the Palestinians envision,” said Rumley. “There may be an international peace conference, or the [Middle East] Quartet may reassert itself, but the U.S. will still be the primary driver of peace negotiations.”
‘In Arabic, you convey a different message’
Following his remarks, Abbas quickly left the chamber and did not stay for follow-up remarks by the U.S. and Israeli delegations.
“I’m sorry that he declined to stay in the chamber to hear remarks of others,” said Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Similarly, Danny Danon, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, noted that the Palestinians need real leadership—“leadership that will speak to Israel and not run away from dialogue.”
“When you speak before international forums, you speak of peace,” said Danon, adding that “when you speak to your people in Arabic, you convey a different message.”
“Mr. Abbas has refused to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sit at the negotiation table,” the Israeli envoy said. “Mr. Abbas, you have made it clear that you are no longer part of the solution, but part of the problem.”
In her remarks, Haley took aim at Palestinian chief negotiator Saed Erekat, who told her earlier this month to “shut up” over her criticism of Abbas.
“I will decline the advice I was recently given by your top negotiator, Saeb Erekat. I will not shut up,” she said. “Rather, I will respectfully speak some hard truths.”
Haley criticized the U.N. Security Council for holding another session on this issue, saying “this session on the Middle East has been taking place each month for many, many years. Its focus has been almost entirely on issues facing Israelis and Palestinians, and we have heard many of the same arguments and ideas over and over again. We have already heard them again this morning.”
She added that “it is as if saying the same things repeatedly, without actually doing the hard work and making the necessary compromises, will achieve anything.”
The U.S. ambassador said the Trump administration “stands ready” to work with the Palestinians. “Our negotiators are sitting behind me,” she said. “But we will not chase after you.”
Shortly after the speech, the White House said it is still moving forward with a Middle East peace plan, spearheaded by Trump’s Mideast advisers, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, while calling Abbas’s speech “old talking points and undeveloped concepts for each of the core issues.”
“[We] will continue working on our plan, which is designed to benefit both the Israeli and Palestinian people,” said White House spokesman Josh Raffel. “We will present it when it is done and the time is right.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu similarly remarked that Abbas’s speech offered “nothing new.”
“He continues to run away from peace,” said Netanyahu, “and continues to pay terrorists and their families $347 million.”
Moving forward, FDD’s Rumley sees little options left for Abbas as he is being squeezed by both the Trump administration and Israel, while also seeing attempts at unification with Hamas fail.
“Behind the scenes, Abbas has few remaining options,” affirmed Rumley. “He won’t pursue violence, nor will he embrace the popular protests fully, nor compromise and coexist with Hamas. The international arena is the only arena he’s comfortable engaging today, and even that is not a comprehensive strategy for statehood. At this point, I think he’s comfortable laying down his conditions, and then walking away and waiting out the current administration.”