Mahmoud Abbas scores symbolic victories at UN, Arab League


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has every reason to feel satisfied, at least in the short term.

In the past 10 days, the 87-year-old Abbas delivered two speeches. The first was in New York at an event organized by the United Nations to mark Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, the term Palestinians use to describe the establishment of Israel and the defeat of Arab armies in 1948; the second was at the 32nd Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Those familiar with Abbas have undoubtedly noticed that he adores delivering speeches. Whenever he takes the floor, whether at a local, regional and or international forum, the octogenarian is his old defiant self.

In recent years, Abbas has excelled in injecting cynicism and humor into his speeches, turning some of them into what his critics describe as comedy or entertainment shows.

Yet not everyone is chuckling at Abbas’s public performances. At times, he seems conspicuously detached from reality.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in Berlin, Germany, August 16, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)

Has Mahmoud Abbas disconnected from reality?

Abbas has long demonstrated a notable lack of interest in the opinions that others hold of him. He appears unmoved by critiques from Hamas and Israel alike. Public opinion polls, showing that more than 70% of the Palestinians want him to resign, do not seem to faze him. Nor does Abbas appear concerned that he is regarded as an illegitimate president as he enters his 18th year of his four-year term in office.

Abbas’s speech at the UN Nakba Day event has angered not only Israel and many Jews, but Palestinians as well. His denial of any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and the likening of Israeli “lies” to those of chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels have been denounced as evidence of his antisemitism and hostility toward the Jewish state.

Many Palestinians, on the other hand, expressed outrage at Abbas for comparing Palestinians to animals. Urging the UN and the international community to provide protection for the Palestinian people, he said in his speech: “Why aren’t you protecting us? Aren’t we human beings? Even animals should be protected. If you have an animal, you won’t protect it? It seems you don’t protect animals.”

“Why aren’t you protecting us? Aren’t we human beings? Even animals should be protected. If you have an animal, you won’t protect it? It seems you don’t protect animals.”

Mahmoud Abbas

For Abbas and the Palestinian Authority leadership, the Nakba Day event in New York is yet another sign of the Palestinians’ diplomatic achievements in the international arena. In their view, the fact that such an event was organized by the UN is proof that the international community has fully endorsed the Palestinian narrative, especially regarding the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel.

In 2012, Abbas said in an interview with an Israeli TV channel that he was not seeking the right to return to Israel, even though he was born in Safed. “I visited Safed before, once,” he said. “But I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there. Palestine for me is the 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as its capital. I am a refugee, but I am living in Ramallah.”

In his recent speech at the UN, however, Abbas reversed his earlier statement. “I’m a refugee, a Palestinian refugee,” he stated. “I want to return to my homeland. I cannot live in Paris or New York. I want Safed. I want it.” His remarks were clearly directed at those Palestinians who often accuse him of readiness to make far-reaching concessions to Israel, including on the “right of return.”

Although the UN event was boycotted by more than 30 countries, including Israel and the US, the fact that Abbas was given a platform to speak in New York, and the warm reception he received there, was enough to make him sound triumphant.

ABBAS IS angry with the Israeli government because of its policies and actions toward the Palestinians and disappointed with the US administration for not putting what he sees as sufficient pressure on Israel to succumb to Palestinian demands.

He is further dismayed by the US administration’s failure to fulfill the promises it made to the Palestinians, including reopening the US Consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington, both of which were closed by the administration of former president Donald Trump.

Echoing Abbas’s resentment, some Palestinian officials in Ramallah have begun publicly criticizing the US administration for its alleged “bias” in favor of Israel. In their statements, the officials continue to condemn Israel’s counterterrorism operations in the West Bank and Israeli measures in Jerusalem, while at the same time holding the US administration fully responsible because of its “silence” toward the “crimes” perpetrated against the Palestinians.

Abbas’s frustration with the US administration has led him to move closer to Russia. At a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2022, Abbas praised Russia’s support for the Palestinians and said he “does not trust the US.”

In early May, Abbas met in his office in Ramallah with Russian envoy to the Middle East Vladimir Safronkov and told him that the Palestinians are keen on strengthening their relations with Moscow. In mid-May, Abbas dispatched PLO Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh to Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov. By courting the Russians, Abbas is seeking to pave the way for Moscow to play a larger role in the Middle East at the expense of the US.

AT THE Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Abbas also seemed determined to challenge both Israel and the US administration by announcing his intention to pursue unilateral moves, which he described as “a diplomatic and legal effort at international forums and courts to restore the rights of our people.” He also vowed to continue working toward gaining full membership for the Palestinians in the UN.

Why was the Arab League summit a success for Mahmoud Abbas?

For Abbas, the Arab summit was a success for three reasons.

First, the Arab leaders reaffirmed “the centrality of the Palestinian issue as one of the key factors of stability in the region.”

Second, they endorsed Abbas’s fierce criticism of Israel by stating that the Arab countries condemn in the strongest terms the practices and violations targeting Palestinians in their lives, property and existence.”

Third, the Arab heads of state, including the host, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reiterated their commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which states that the Arabs will establish normal relations with Israel only after a “full withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967” and the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state.

These statements from the Arab leaders are of significant importance to Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, mainly because they demonstrate – at least in their opinion – that the Arab countries have not turned their back on the Palestinians. True, most Arab countries do not provide financial aid to the Palestinians, but even paying lip service is something that the Ramallah-based leadership has come to appreciate.

What is more significant for Abbas is the pledge by the Arab leaders to adhere to the Arab Peace Initiative. For Abbas and the Palestinians, this is an indication that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries do not intend to join the Abraham Accords and normalize their ties with Israel. The pledge came amid increased talk in Jerusalem and Washington about efforts to persuade bin Salman to make peace with Israel.

The Palestinians have not hidden their fear that Saudi Arabia will sign a peace treaty with Israel, a move that could put them on a collision course with the influential kingdom. In meetings with bin Salman and other Saudi officials, Abbas and some Palestinian representatives are reported to have voiced concern that a peace deal between the Saudis and Israel would be seen as a “reward” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and a big achievement for the US administration.  

Nonetheless, some officials in Ramallah say they are still worried that the Saudis will surprise everyone by striking a deal with Israel, just as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain did three years ago.

“We have no assurances it won’t happen,” said one official. “It seems there are many things happening behind the scenes. It would be a disaster for the Palestinians if we lose Saudi Arabia.”

To some, the events at the UN and the Arab summit in Jeddah may seem of little consequence. But to Abbas and other Palestinians, symbolic victories are vital. They impart a degree of relevance to Abbas at a time when many Palestinians view him and his leadership as rather less than relevant. Moreover, such high-profile events focusing on the Palestinian issue offer some solace to decision-makers in Ramallah, who fear that they will be left alone to confront the far-right coalition in Israel.