Mahmoud Abbas surprised even his critics on September 23 by giving a stirring and emotional speech to the UN General Assembly as part of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s highly publicised bid for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood. Abbas, who is the chair of the PLO and who continues to be touted by Israel and the USA as the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) despite the fact his electoral mandate expired more than two and half years ago, spoke with dignity and compassion of the aspirations of the Palestinian people.
In his 40-minute speech, Abbas recalled the forcible removal of Palestinians in 1948, saying that he and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians “were forced to leave their homes and their towns and villages, carrying only some of our belongings and our grief and our memories and the keys of our homes to the camps of exile and the Diaspora ... one of the worst operations of uprooting, destruction and removal of a vibrant and cohesive society that had been contributing in a pioneering and leading way in the cultural, educational and economic renaissance of the Arab Middle East”.
Abbas went on to talk about Israel’s expanding settlements, noting not only that they “embody the core of the policy of colonial military occupation of the Palestinian people” but also that the building of Israeli colonies on Palestinian territory violates both international humanitarian law and United Nations resolutions.
The most surprising part of Abbas’ speech came when he described Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, the building of the apartheid wall, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the displacement of Palestinian owners and residents as “a multi-pronged policy of ethnic cleansing aimed at pushing them away from their ancestral home”. It is hard to recall any previous occasion when Abbas described Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies in such a way.
While there was much to applaud in Abbas’ speech, there were equally as many flaws and problems, most of which were an articulation of the flaws and problems in the PLO’s political strategy in relation to the UN statehood bid and in its broader strategy for winning national liberation.
For almost two decades, the primary strategy of the PLO leadership has relied on negotiations and has relegated other political activity, such as mass mobilisations, to being a secondary tactic. As Abbas noted repeatedly before his UN speech, “Our first, second and third priority is negotiations ... No matter what happens at the UN, we have to return to negotiations.”
This strategy reflects the fact that the leaders of the PLO and the PA are bourgeois nationalists. Their aim is to establish a Palestinian state, but one that will accommodate a capitalist economy and privilege a moneyed elite. While they will use mass mobilisations as a tactic, they do not see them as a way of winning national liberation. Rather, they see mass mobilisations as something they can turn on and off at will in order to impact on the atmosphere for negotiations. In addition, Abbas and other leaders of the PA and PLO know that ongoing organisation for mass mobilisation could develop a grassroots independent base that might challenge their leadership.
This is why more and more Palestinian activists and commentators, as well as solidarity supporters, have criticised the PLO UN statehood bid as doing little to challenge reality on the ground for Palestinians. In the wake of Abbas’ speech, a range of Palestinian commentators noted that not only was the speech riven with contradictions, but it also failed to break free of the fruitless “peace process”, which for the last two decades has resulted only in a further entrenchment of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies.
As Saree Makdisi noted during his October 5 Edward Said Memorial Lecture hosted by the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, Abbas’ speech sought to “tactically reframe rather than strategically transform the pointless negotiations game that he and his associates have been embarked on for two decades now”. Makdisi, the nephew of the late renowned Palestinian academic Edward Said, went on to note that “the statehood gambit at the UN carries enormous political risks for the entire Palestinian people that Mr. Abbas and his associates have entered into without even consulting them”.
Palestinian refugee and development economist Raja Khalidi noted in his September 12 article for the independent Arabic web journal Jadiliya: “[A] wide swath of Palestinian activists consider the statehood initiative problematic from legal and representational angles, because of its primary focus on statehood rather than the panoply of denied Palestinian rights”. According to Khalidi, “For them [Palestinian activists] the bid for state-recognition is better abandoned or possibly reformulated, as it might lead to either an even more complex situation or hollow diplomatic victory”.
The divisions within the Palestinian national liberation movement around the statehood bid have manifested primarily along geographical and generational lines. While there has been a range of dissenting voices emanating from the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly as the date of the bid came closer, the strongest opposition was initially voiced by Palestinians in exile. What is noticeable about the dissenting voices, from within the occupied territories and from the diaspora, is that they have been overwhelmingly young.
Those opposed to the PLO bid raised two main objections. The first is that the majority of the Palestinian people were excluded from the decision making process – both those living in the occupied territories and those living in Israel or exile around the world. The second main objection raised by critics has centred on the fact that the whole statehood bid is disconnected from the reality experienced by most Palestinians.
Ali Abunimah, a co-founder of Electronic Intifada, noted in a September 19 Foreign Affairs article: “The opposition, and there is a great deal of it, stems from three main sources: the vague bid could lead to unintended consequences; pursuing statehood above all else endangers equality and refugee rights; and there is no democratic mandate for the Palestinian Authority to act on behalf of Palestinians or to gamble with their rights and future”.
However, many critics, both Palestinians and solidarity activists, have noted that the bid brought two unforeseen achievements. Firstly, it all but marked the death of the Olso Accord, revealing that after almost 20 years of fruitless negotiations the Palestinian people were no closer to liberation or statehood. Secondly, the PLO’s bid categorically discredited the USA as a supposed neutral arbiter of the Middle East peace process. Not only has the Obama administration threatened to veto the UN bid, but the US Congress has already moved to freeze hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority because the PLO refused to drop the UN bid.
The PLO’s bid has also strengthened the confidence of a new generation of Palestinian leaders, whose growing discontent with the older generation in the PLO and the PA became more manifest and vocal. This new generation believes that there is a need to go back to the basics of building a popular mass movement and mass mobilisations both in the occupied territories and internationally, and that the focus should be on the struggle for statehood connected organically to the struggle for Palestinian human rights.
The UN bid has contributed to a developing clarity among this new generation that self-determination will be achieved only by building a mass popular movement against Israeli colonialism, occupation and apartheid. For many of these young leaders, this can and should be done in conjunction with the Palestinian unarmed popular resistance in the occupied territories and with the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against the Israeli state initiated by Palestinian civil society.