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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Why Mahmoud Abbas needs to seize the moment at the UN General Assembly

UN General Assembly 2018: After Trump’s moves in favour of Israel, Palestinians need their leader to deliver more than ever

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York. EPA
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York. EPA

Two years ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on the United Nations General Assembly to make 2017 the year to end the Israeli occupation. But as he prepares to take the stage again this week, the Palestinian position is weaker than ever.

Since that speech, an American president has entered the Oval Office who officials in Ramallah view as the most pro-Israeli leader they have ever encountered and a man who has further undercut Palestinians dreams of statehood. US President Donald Trump has embarked on what he has called a bid to seal the “ultimate deal” – an agreement to end the decades-long conflict – but the Palestinians have perceived his moves from January 2017 onwards as the ultimate betrayal.

No US peace plan has been pushed out, despite the White House saying it has been working intensively on one for the past 20 months. The US embassy now sits in West Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv. Israeli settlement construction continues unchallenged in the occupied West Bank, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees now receives zero American funding, leaving it in crisis, and all public diplomatic contact between Washington and Ramallah has been severed.

The Palestinians are relying on the international community to help, but little is being done to stop unilateral American moves in favour of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government. That is why Mr Abbas’ speech at the UN General Assembly this week should be the most important of his political career – but it likely won’t be.

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The Palestine Liberation Organisation has confirmed to The National that Mr Abbas will be in attendance despite recent health problems. In his September 27 speech, he is expected to rail against Washington, reiterating the need for an alternative peace plan to what the Palestinians believe the US is putting together.

But he will return to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian National Council, the PLO's legislative body, after the speech, where any response to the US will be decided upon. It means that few concrete steps will be announced in his address.

"You are not going to see many surprises to be honest with you, but it’s going to be a very strong statement,” a Palestinian official told The National.

The official noted that the content of Mr Abbas’ address could still change as “the last touches are made in New York a few hours before the speech”.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al Malki told Maan news agency that Mr Abbas’ outline would be similar to the proposals he put before the UN in February, where he advocated an “international coalition” to replace the US as the main broker in the conflict.

A provisional outline of what the PLO response will be to US and Israeli actions, seen by The National, confirms what Mr Al Malki says.

The standout decision is that the “State of Palestine” will join 22 specialised agencies of the UN that had previously been ruled “off-limits” because of US opposition and hopes of maintaining ties with Washington. The Palestinian official said Ramallah “had a dialogue” with the previous Obama administration so were “not in the business of surprising anyone” in Washington.

“With this administration there is no engagement, there is nothing. There is no incentive not to go to a particular organisation,” the official said, confirming the Palestinian accession to those organisations, which include the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the International Telecommunication Union.

Mr Abbas is also likely to declare that the Palestinians are no longer bound to the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, introducing measures that could range from suspending security co-operation with Israel to ending recognition of the West Bank’s division into areas A, B and C.

His speech will also call for greater UN protection for Palestinian civilians, reiterate the demand for an international conference on the conflict and formally dissolve the Palestinian Authority as defined under Oslo with a name change that would replace it with “the State of Palestine under occupation”.

Mr Trump and his team of advisers – son-in-law Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt – appear to have attempted to remove the issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return from the table.

There is little in the planned Palestinian response about these two issues. But the Palestinian leadership has remained adamant that any solution to the conflict would require East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, the Israeli settlements defined as illegal and resolving the issue of refugees displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948.

To that end, it has cut all ties with Washington and said the US can no longer be an impartial broker in the conflict.

A day before his speech, Mr Abbas has invited Middle East envoys, foreign ministers and UN diplomats – about 30 dignitaries in total – to a meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly. He didn't invite any American representatives.

The meeting is an attempt to rally international figures around the Palestinian position as the crisis for Ramallah continues. The Palestinian Ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said it will address the “radical shift” in US policy towards the Palestinians under Mr Trump.

Observers say that many of the moves the Palestinians could announce at the summit have been heard before.

“Any announcements should of course be taken with a grain of salt. Much of the plan outlined has been threatened before, including in past UNGA speeches, and never carried out,” said Hugh Lovatt, Middle East and North Africa policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.

“That said, it would be wrong to entirely dismiss the putative plan. While much of this may prove merely symbolic for now, there is an unmistakable mood of anger and alienation within the Palestinian leadership caused by US policies, which is pushing them towards more disruptive strategies.”

The Palestinian leader has the annual disadvantage of speaking before Mr Netanyahu, who will have the chance to strike back during his address. The Israeli leader's speeches are usually dramatic, prop-filled affairs that capture headlines around the world.

On the other hand, Mr Abbas now has the ammunition to muster a verbal body blow to the Israeli government on the biggest stage before his Israeli rival has even uttered a word. What that will be, and whether he delivers it or not, remains to be seen. But, for the millions of Palestinians living under an Israeli occupation with US backing, he has nothing to lose.