Palestinian president outlines political identity of new Palestinian state

By presenting strategically calculated messages for all relevant audiences, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas used yesterday’s speech to outline the identity of the new Palestinian state he is to seek at the UN.

This post has been updated, 19 September, 2011

When Palestinian President and Chairman of PLO Mahmoud Abbas ended his speech on Friday to an audience of Palestinian dignitaries by stating that he was going to the present the Palestinian statehood bid to the United Nations Security Council, he received a heartfelt standing ovation. Yet going to the UNSC might be the biggest gambit yet in the whole diplomatic game of risk that has been set in motion.

On the surface, the speech said little that was groundbreaking. But a quick exegesis reveals a carefully and strategically thought out text full of addresses to specific audiences.

1.       To Washington and the international community, Abbas put an end to speculation about how the statehood bid would be made. Only in recent months and weeks has the plan begun to come clear. Up until yesterday, it was not definite whether the Palestinian leadership would bypass the UNSC, and instead go straight to the General Assembly. The UNSC has the power to recommend full statehood and membership into the UN, but an American veto seems inevitable. The latter would mean avoiding the humiliation and defeat of the veto; and perhaps going straight to the GA could also be subtle statement of American isolation, by sending the message that Palestine and its supporters do not need the superpower. I’ve come to believe that in fact the momentum of recognition and the increasing treatment of Palestine as a state through deepening diplomatic ties are more important than the seat in the UN, for on-the-ground change.

I was therefore surprised that Abbas placed much more emphasis on joining the UN, than state-building; in fact at the end, he specifically lowered expectations about independence. AP’s Mohammed Daraghmeh reported:

He also acknowledged that his U.N. move would not end the Israeli occupation and cautioned against outsize hopes.

“We don’t want to raise expectations by saying we are going to come back with full independence.”

Instead, Abbas also emphasized that the statehood bid is intended as a step towards restarting negotiations. Indeed, he has been toeing the negotiation line again recently; wisely showing himself to be the peace-seeking party, highlighting Israel as the intransigent.

A second aspect that I believe was addressed to the international community of observers was the emphasis on human rights, women’s rights, and the rule of law that will characterize the Palestinian state. Maybe it was for Palestinians too – but I heard a good deal of guffawing from Palestinian colleagues around this statement. The PA has a long way to go before they’ll believe him. But these are at least rhetorically the gold standard of in the current question of who deserves a state. Kosovo had to do a lot more to prove itself on these measures before it reached this stage – remember “standards over status.”

2.       To the Israeli and Jewish community, Abbas made three critical points (these are not in the order of his speech). First, he addressed oft-heard accusations that Palestinians do not yearn for peace, and emphasized his desire for peace unambiguously. Second, he drew another unambiguous distinction using the jargon du jour on the Israel debate:

“No one can isolate Israel. No one can delegitimize Israel. It is a recognized state,” he said. “We want to delegitimze the occupation, not the state of Israel. The occupation is the nightmare of our existence.”

Third, although he talked about the horrors of occupation “for 63 years,” the kind of statement that terrifies Israelis and delights Palestinian detractors, he repeated at various points that this statehood bid affirms the 1967 basis of borders, and the two-state solution.

3.       To the Palestinians, Abbas practically pleaded for two things: political reconciliation and non-violence. Reconciliation is key, and it’s not coincidental that Abbas emphasized repeatedly that the PLO is the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. He knows that he is using his last ounce of internal credibility on the statehood gambit, and fighting for his political life. If he succeeds in both advancing statehood and reconciling the Palestinians, he and his people will experience their greatest moment yet. If he fails at both, the results could be dire.

Finally, the non-violent approach he emphasized in his speech is the revolution of political, cultural and moral identity the Palestinians have undertaken. Many have asked if they are inspired by the Arab Spring and I think the answer is a resounding and joyful yes. And if the victims of Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen inspired the Palestinians to save lives by avoiding violence – while contributing to the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state – the tragedy of their deaths will have a sacred meaning far beyond their borders.