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

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.

Hijazi maintained that popular protest and dissent will be left to Palestinian civil society. He also echoed Abbas in connecting the diplomatic maneuvering to the spreading Arab Spring, but sidestepped demands of recent Palestinian street protests responding to the regional uprisings. Arguing that the mass March 15 youth protests in Gaza and Ramallah to end national division and democratically transform Palestinian leadership from the grassroots was an internal issue, he added referring to the youth protests, "I guess they achieved their goal."

"Frankly, I think the extent to which to the two so-called Palestinian national leaderships have abdicated their responsibility for any kind of national interest is scandalous, " leading Palestinian-American historian and former co-director of the Institute for Palestine Studies at Columbia University, Rashid Khalidi, said of both the PA and Hamas which governs Gaza. "They have forfeited their right to represent in consequence."

The renowned Arab Studies studies professor distinguishes between the effectiveness of an information campaign about Palestinian rights in North America, resulting from the bid for Security Council recognition, and the motives of the leadership behind it.

The Palestinian Authority's "primary objectives," he said, "are very clear; to maintain themselves in office, maintain this elite in power, maintain the flow of perks and privileges and money that sustains the boom in Ramallah on which they float, and last and by far least, serve national interests as they define them."

Khalidi spoke of the important political significance in the UN maneuvering as well as the need to dissolve both the PA and end national division in order to move forward. Discussing the necessity of exposing the Palestinian experience to the West as a crucial front for winning liberation, he also maintains there is a need for the Palestinian struggle to mobilize support in the region amid the popular uprisings. National unity, he adds, is a base requirement to achieving any of these things.

"I hate to say this but there is actually a real information war going on out there while people are playing around with each other in Ramallah and Gaza," he told me.

As heads of states addressed the UN General Assembly and primarily debated the nuances of a failed Oslo peace process and the parameters of deciding a two state solution to the conflict, there was a striking sense of de ja vu. After all, it was this time last year that Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gathered in Washington with Obama for what was billed as the beginning of final status negations.

With the U.S. disinclined to push Israel to make concessions but insisting on a deciding role in the process, Israel's unwillingness to recognize the PLO leadership's bare minimum face-saving demands and Hamas objecting to the process and claiming leadership over Palestinian resistance, little seemed new in New York. Despite a regional uprising and the new dynamics of a Palestinian grassroots political struggle that is beginning to connect refugees, Gazans, West Bankers and Palestinian citizens of Israel, the faces dominating the debate around the UN were the same ones seen in Washington last year. And while the tongue lashings are sharper from the Israeli, American and PA camps, and Palestinians received public support from much of the general assembly, the interests and parameters of the debate remained the same.

Last year, I was in Ramallah when negotiations kicked off in the US. While people watched the diplomatic ranging on Al Jazeera, the PA escalated its security clampdown against popular opposition to negotiations that were quickly exposed as detrimental to most Palestinians.

Now amidst PA promises to contain protests and effectively restrict their own people's dissent on behalf of Israel's occupation, I learned Palestinian Authority checkpoints were established around Ramallah.

In his speech last Friday, much to the satisfaction of the United States, Abbas made clear that alongside his statehood bid he would be open to immediate negotiations with Israel. He also warned that continued settlement expansion threatened the existence of the PA, a reoccurring threat directed at Israel and the US. His message is a simple one: unless he is allowed to save face, he will be unable to forcefully maintain the status quo.

Delivering the speech of his career, Abbas called for a "Palestinian Spring" in order to buy himself more time in power. The question is, how long will his newfound popular connection hold the door open for a continuation of Oslo by other means?


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