In November 1974, the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat addressed the entire world from the rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly. Always a master of spectacle, Arafat cut an arresting figure as he strode towards the podium in a tieless black shirt and flowing cream jacket, with a perfectly-coiffed keffiyeh wrapped around his head. A holster without its gun—firearms are forbidden in the General Assembly Hall—was draped by his side pocket, completing the aesthetic effect of a Palestinian Che Guevara.
Arafat, however, wasn’t going to let U.N. protocol ruin the dramatic impact of his speech.
“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun,” he told the U.N. delegates at the end of his speech. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
In visual terms at least, the contrast between Arafat in November 1974 and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 30, 2015, couldn’t have been greater. At the General Assembly rostrum, the portly, drab Abbas delivered a speech so rhetorically labored and dull that I found myself wondering whether he’d had second thoughts about dropping the much-vaunted “bombshell” everyone had been talking about. (In the end, he delivered on that one.)
In between thanking Norway, Sweden, the Arab League, the Obama administration, and Russia—apologies if I left anyone out—there were strands of sheer nastiness running through Abbas’s speech. Referring to “Palestine” as the “land of holiness,” he spoke reverentially of Jesus and Muhammed, but deliberately omitted any mention of the deep and historic Jewish ties to the land: the Davidic and Hasmonean kingdoms that reigned there, for example, or the jewel in the crown that was the Temple in Jerusalem.
Then, going through a litany of alleged Israeli crimes against the Palestinians, he closed by talking about the killings of Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin by Revisionist Zionist militias in April 1948—a death toll that represented a fraction of 1 percent of the Arab population of British Palestine, but is widely regarded by Palestinian-apologists as a defining moment in the Zionist “genocide” of the Palestinians. By speaking of Deir Yassin, Abbas’s purpose was to reinforce the ugly myth that Israel is a colonial state formed in “original sin.”
Yet what will excite interest in Abbas’s speech is not his jaundiced view of the past—Arafat made many similar false claims before the U.N.—but his plans for the future. “Palestine” would achieve internationally recognized sovereignty with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, he asserted, and it would do so without Israel’s consent.
As a result, the Palestinians no longer consider themselves bound by the 1993 Oslo Accords that created the PA because, Abbas said, Israel has stopped abiding by them. Instead, he went on, Israel has created a system of “apartheid” in the West Bank and has continued its rapacious construction of Jewish settlements.
As he spoke, all the refutations came to mind: the 10-month settlement freeze that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured in 2009, following a bruising battle with right-wing government ministers who opposed him; the lack of any distinction between natural growth within existing settlements and the construction of new ones (there haven’t actually been any new ones since the Oslo Accords were signed); the total and unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, generating a vacuum filled by Hamas two years later; the continued declarations of Netanyahu that he is ready for direct talks with the Palestinians without preconditions.
More bothersome than the matter of refuting Abbas’s dubious claims, though, is where his vision of the West Bank’s future will lead. (Gaza has already spent nearly a decade under the boot of the Hamas terrorists.) For half of his speech, he regaled his audience with encomiums to the development of the PA under his watch, with its sophisticated institutions and respect for the “rule of law”—a definition that, in this case, apparently permits the pilfering of billions of dollars in aid money by PA cronies. For the other half of the speech, he declared his readiness to abandon all of that by compelling Israel to “fully assume all its responsibilities as an occupying power.”
Without the PA as a go-between the Palestinians and the Israeli military, Abbas reasons, the world will be reminded of the stark brutality of Israel’s “occupation,” as well as its universal rejection by the Palestinians. His strategy is to undermine Israel through legal means—joining international treaties and organizations, charging Israel with war crimes at the International Criminal Court—and “peaceful” protest. Like Arafat in 1974, Abbas wants us to believe that he is extending the olive branch, not pointing the gun.
The problem is that Abbas has little control over how events pan out. Many Palestinians resent him and his corrupt, nepotistic rule, while quite a few openly detest him. As Abbas weakens in the West Bank, Hamas—with whom he fought a bitter civil war in Gaza in 2007—becomes strengthened. And that’s not to mention the terrorist groups in the wider region, like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, who are salivating at the prospect of the West Bank turning into Afghanistan. Nor can we ignore the machinations of the Iranian regime, which now exercises supreme control in Syria and Iraq.
Ironically, the first victims of a collapse along these lines would be Abbas and his regime, as well the growing Palestinian middle class in Ramallah and its environs. They may not like Israel’s presence, but how many Palestinians in Jenin, say, would swap places with their brethren in Syria currently facing Assad’s barrel bombs? By reneging on his agreements with Israel, Abbas has brought this regional nightmare one step closer to the territory whose interests he claims to represent.
In the final analysis, there is no olive branch here, just a gun. And this time, it’s loaded.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).