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Oslo By Other Means? The Meaning Behind Palestine's Bid for UN Statehood Recognition

Is Palestine's UN statehood bid just a cheap ploy to keep Mahmood Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in power at the expense of grassroots activists?

In a defining and defiant speech on September 23, Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman and Palestinian Authority president Mahmood Abbas spoke over the United Nations General Assembly to crowds in Ramallah about a reality Palestinians have been longing for their leadership to acknowledge.

Announcing the PA's bid for full statehood recognition by the UN Security Council, Abbas struck a tone that resembled a PLO leadership in its younger days of guerilla resistance and calls for third-world revolution, directly quoting Yasser Arafat's 1974 statement. "Don't let this olive branch fall from my hand," he said in an attempt to emulate the iconic Palestinian leader.

Amidst standing ovations and thunderous applause reminiscent of an era where the Palestinian leadership defiantly demanded self determination on the global stage, Abbas spoke of a Palestinian experience based in ethnic cleansing, siege, exile, displacement, segregation and constant colonization.

Looking past a stunned and displeased American and Israeli delegation, Abbas acknowledged Palestinian national sentiment to the world in a bid to find legitimacy at home.

The last time the PA president even approached the popular sentiment of his UN address was in 2008 during the 60th anniversary of the Nakba -- Israel's displacement of roughly 750,000 Palestinians in 1947-'48. Then, responding to a popular campaign expressing fear that the PLO leadership would trade away the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to return to lands they were forced from (fears confirmed in Al Jazeera's release of the "Palestine Papers"), Abbas spoke of his family's experience as refugees. He went on to co-opt the narrative, claiming that by returning from Tunis to Ramallah, he had exercised his right while ignoring the rights of refugees to return to their land in present day Israel.

However, like the 2008 speech, Abbas' General Assembly address simultaneously struck a popular chord while buying time and deflecting from core Palestinian demands.

"Why has Abbas picked up this statehood recognition bid?" former PLO spokesperson and legal adviser on negotiations, Diana Buttu asked me rhetorically over breakfast in a Brooklyn diner. "Because he has nothing to show for anything else and it's there greatest stall tactic for domestic politics," she said less than an hour before US President Barack Obama reneged on his commitment to an independent Palestinian state during his UN address.

Referring to the growing Palestinian youth dissent, Buttu described a PA primarily interested in self preservation. "We don't have to have presidential elections because there is a statehood bid! We can't have parliamentary elections because there is a statehood bid! We can't have internal reconciliation because there is a statehood bid," she said, describing the cynicism of the PA's strategy.

Indeed, it seems that all political efforts are focused solely on the UN and it is unclear if there will be much action from the PA beyond the speech. Speaking with Ammar Hijazi, a representative from Palestine's UN delegation, just after Abbas called for full UN statehood membership, he said the PA efforts would continue to be focused on the United Nations. "We will wait for the Security Council decision and try to put more pressure on it," he contended despite a US commitment to veto the request.

Hijazi then confirmed and defended a leadership position of ringing Palestinian independence demonstrations with PA security forces to prevent them from confronting Israeli checkpoints or settlements. "We are not in favour of seeing the blood of our people spilled," he declared. Previously when pressed to respond to growing West Bank protests, the PA leadership has called for any uprising to be based on nonviolent popular marches to settlements and checkpoints.

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