Reflections on the Abbas Statehood/Membership Speech to the UN General Assembly

29 Sep

            There is a natural disposition for supporters of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination to suppose that the Palestinian statehood bid must be a positive initiative because it has generated such a frantic Israel effort to have it rejected. Despite the high costs to American diplomacy in the Middle East at this time of regional tumult and uncertainty, the United States has committed itself to exercise its veto on Israel’s behalf if that turns out to be necessary. To avoid the humiliation of disregarding the overwhelming majority opinion of most governments in the world, the United States has rallied the former European colonial powers to stand by its side, while leaning on Bosnia and Colombia to abstain, thereby hoping to deny Palestine the nine votes it needs for a Security Council decision without technically casting a veto. On the side of Palestinian statehood one finds China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Gabon, the leading countries of the South, the main peoples previously victimized by colonial rule. Is not a comparison of these geopolitical alignments sufficient by itself to resolve the issue of taking sides on such a litmus test of political identity? The old West versus the new South!

            Add to this the drama, eloquence, and forthrightness of Mahmoud Abbas’s historic speech of 23 September to the General Assembly that received standing ovations from many of the assembled delegates. Such a favorable reception was reinforced by its contrast with the ranting polemic delivered by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who insulted the UN by calling it ‘the theater of the absurd’ while offering nothing of substance that might make even mildly credible his strident rhetoric claim to support ‘peace,’ ‘direct negotiations.’ and ‘a Palestinian state.’ The deviousness of Netanyahu was made manifest when a few days later the Israeli Government announced that it had approved 1,100 additional housing units in the major East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. This was a bridge too far for even Hilary Clinton who called the move ‘counter-productive’ and Europeans regarded as deeply disappointing and confidence-destroying, so much so that Netanyahu was openly asked to reverse the decision. There are a variety of other indications that additional settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing initiatives will be forthcoming from Israel in the weeks ahead. Are not such expressions of Israeli defiance that embarrasses even their most ardent governmental supporter enough reason by itself to justify a Security Council recommendation of Palestine statehood at this time? Would it not be worthwhile at this crucial moment to demonstrate the wide chasm separating increasing global support for the pursuit of justice on behalf of the Palestinian people from this domestically driven American reliance on its ultimate right of veto to block Palestinain aspirations? Would it not be well to remind Americans across the country, including even its captive Congress, that its own Declaration of Independence wisely counseled ‘a decent respect for the opinions of mankind’? If ever the use of the veto seems ill-advised and deeply illegitimate, it is in this instance, which the Obama Administration seems to acknowledge, or otherwise why would it use its leverage to induce allies and dependent states to go along with its opposition to Palestinian membership in the UN?

            Turning to the speech itself, the language of recognition may be more notable than the substance. Never before in an international forum had the voice of the Palestinian Authority spoke of Israel’s occupation policies so unabashedly–as ‘colonial,’ as involving ‘ethnic cleansing,’ as imposing an unlawful ‘annexation wall,’ as creating a new form of ‘apartheid.’ With admirable directness, Israel was accused of carrying out the occupation in a manner that violated fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, and cumulatively amounted to the commission of crimes against humanity.

             In the course of his speech Abbas tried hard to reassure the Palestinian diaspora on two matters of deep concern: that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will continue to represent the Palestinian people, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the most fundamental of Palestinian rights at stake, the right of self-determination. The issue here is lost on almost all observers of the conflict, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) of which Abbas is president is a subsidiary body that was created by the PLO with a temporary mandate to administer Palestinian territory under occupation, and thus it was important to allay suspicions that the PLO was an intended casualty of the statehood bid so as to territorialize the conflict and give the Abbas and PA leadership complete representational control over the Palestinian role at the UN. The deep concern here relates to the adequacy of representation relating to the Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries or in exile around the world. In the Palestinian National Council, 483 of its 669 members are drawn from Palestinians not living under occupation. President Abbas used the clearest possible language to reaffirm the position of the PLO just prior to enumerating the five conditions guiding his leadership role: “I confirm, on behalf of the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which will remain so until the end of the conflict in all its aspects and until the resolution of the final status issues.”

            In the background of this representation issue is an anxiety that Palestinian refugee rights will be forgotten or marginalized in the course of striking a deal that is build around a ‘land for peace’ formula. Again Abbas inserted some reassuring language in his speech to the effect that peace will depend on “a just and agreed upon solution to the Palestine refugee issue in accordance with resolution 194,” which unconditionally affirmed a Palestinian right of return. Relevantly, Netanyahu in his speech alluded to the “fantasy of flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians,” which is his way of both dismissing the rights of Palestinian refugees, especially as derived from the massive dispossession of Palestinian in 1948, and insisting on the Palestinian recognition of Israel as ‘a Jewish state.’ This insistence combines  demographics with democracy, contending that ever since the promise of Lord Balfour on behalf of the British Government to a leader of the Zionist movement in 1917 there were continual acknowledgements that Israel was a Jewish state. Netanyahu made short shrift of the claims to dignity and equality of the 1.5 million Palestinians existing under an array of discriminatory burdens by saying merely that Israel treats its minorities in a manner that respects their human rights. It should be recalled that the Balfour Declaration, a notoriously colonial disposition, did not promise the Jewish people a state, but rather ‘a national home,’ and that it was to be established in a manner that did not interfere with the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ Human rights and democracy have become significantly universalized during the last several decades. This development implies that the governing structures of society embodied in the state must renounce any claim of ethnic or religious particularity. Political legitimacy in the 21st century should not be accorded to any state that claims to be a Jewish state, an Islamic state, or a Christian state. Such statist neutrality should be set forth as an element of legitimate statehood by formal action at the United Nations. Such a declaration would impose a limit on the right of self-determination by denying to peoples the right to establish ethnic or religious states. In a globalizing world ethnic and religious diversity are present in every major state, and needs to be respected by unfurling a banner of equality that grants religious freedom to all faiths and allows collective identities to be expressed without prejudice.

            For some widely respected Palestinian activists and NGOs, these assurances were not enough. With the formidable intellectual support of Oxford professor, Guy Goodwin-Gill, the very idea of Palestinian statehood compromises the representational rights of diaspora Palestinians within UN arenas of decision, and potentially deforms future negotiations by according predominance to territorial priorities. Guy-Goodwin’s analysis was built around the general view that a state could never adequately represent people outside its borders. Given existing realities this would mean disenfranchising the Palestine refugee and exile population that comprises a majority of ‘the Palestinian people’ who are as a collectivity the holder of the overarching entitlement embodied in the right of self-determination. Such a view may be technically correct, and operationally prudent, but it overstates the clarity of the legal implications of Palestinian statehood and UN membership, while understating the degree to which what is being questioned are the psycho-political priorities of the current PA/PLO leadership.  To further strengthen and promote the unity of the Palestinian global solidarity movement it is crucial to continue to seek accommodation between territorial and non-territorial dimensions of the Palestinian struggle, and thus to minimize intra-Palestinian divergencies, including the ongoing rift with Hamas. Here again Abbas had some reassuring words to say about the future implementation of the reconciliation agreement reached between the PLO and Hamas in June, but the failure of Hamas to endorse the statehood/membership bid at this time raises doubts about whether cooperation between these two political tendencies of Palestinians living under occupation will be forthcoming in the future.

           There are, against this background, some further grounds for concern that result from gaps or disappointing formulations in the Abbas speech. One glaring gap was the failure to address the accountability issues associated with the non-implemented recommendations of the Goldstone Report arising out of war crimes allegations associated with massive attacks (Israeli code named ‘Operation Cast Lead”) on Gaza between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009.  In an important statement issued by the Palestinian Centre of Human Rights, jointly with several respected human rights NGOs, the PLO was given responsibility for doing their best to see that these recommendations for referral to the International Criminal Court be carried out.  In the words of the statement, “should the PLO choose not to pursue the accountability process initiated by the Report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission – at the expense of the Statehood initiative – this will amount to the prioritization of political processes over victims’ fundamental rights; indicating acceptance of the pervasive impunity that characterizes the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.”

         Although implicit in the Abbas speech, the systematic refusal of Israel to comply with international law, was not accorded the emphasis in deserves. Given this reality, it was comic irony for Netanyahu to invoke international law in relation to the captivity of a single Israel soldier, Gilad Shalit; of course, international law should be observed in relation to every person, but when Israel subjects the whole of Gaza to a punitive blockade that has lasted for more than four years, imprisons thousands of Palestinians in conditions below international legal standards, and refuses to implement the near unanimous Advisory Opinion of the World Court on the unlawfulness of its annexation wall, it has lost all credibility to rely on international law on those few occasions when it works to its advantage.

           Even more disturbing, because so relevant to the present posture of the conflict, was the rather bland expression of willingness on the part of the PLO to resume direct negotiations provided that Israel imposes “a complete cessation of settlement activities.” As there is no chance that this condition will be met, it may not be so important for Abbas to question the value of direct negotiations given their repeated failure to move the parties any closer to peace during the past 18 years. In fact, Israel has cloaked settlement expansion, ethnic cleansing, and a variety of encroachments on what might have at one time become a viable Palestinian state, with the charade of periodic peace talks held under the non-neutral auspices of the United States. What Abbas could have done more effectively, given the unlikelihood of an affirmative Security Council recommendation on UN membership, is to couple the statehood/membership bid with the demand of a new framework for future negotiations that includes both Israeli commitments to abandon settlement expansion in East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, and more importantly, selects a state or regional organization to provide non-partisan auspices for the talks. Such a demand would have made clear that the PLO/PA was no longer willing to play along with the Oslo game that has more than doubled the settler population and allowed Israel to invest in an expensive settler only infrastructure that is unlikely to be ever voluntarily dismantled. It is past time to declare the Oslo framework of direct negotiations as terminally ill, futile, and illegitimate, and incapable of drafting a roadmap that leads anywhere worth going! For the UN to be one of the four Quartet members, especially given the American hegemonic control over the diplomacy on the conflict, also warranted a harsh comment by Abbas.

          What the future holds is more uncertain than ever. The mainstream media has tended to criticize both Israel and the PA/PLO as if their respective behavior was equivalent. For instance, the Palestinian statehood/membership initiative is treated as equally provocative as the Israeli announced intention to expand the unlawful Gilo settlement. Such an attitude does belong in the theater of the absurd, equating a completely legal, arguably overdue plea to be given an upgraded status at the UN with a criminal encroachment on basic Palestinian rights associated with territory under occupation, as recognized by Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

           Whether Israel will follow through on its threats to ‘punish’ the PA for undertaking this completely legal initiative remains to be seen. Already there is troublesome indications of widespread settler violence in the West Bank that is either unopposed or backed by Israeli military and security units. As has been observed by the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, Israel will never have a more moderate partner for peace than the Ramallah leadership, and if it undermines its viability it will be demonstrating once again that it has lost its capacity to promote its national interests. It has showed this aspect of decline most dramatically by picking a fight with a resurgent Turkey, and then missing one opportunity after another to repair the damage, which is what Ankara earlier had hoped would happen. As regional developments move toward greater support for the Palestinian struggle, Israel is allowing what might have been a historic opportunity for a sustainable peace to slip away. An acute problem with extremism, whether of the Likud or Tea Party variety, is that it subordinates interests and rationality to the dictates of an obsessive and emotive vision that is incapable of calculating the balance of gains and losses in conflict situations, being preoccupied with all or nothing outcomes, which is the antithesis of diplomacy. This is a path that inevitably produces acute human suffering and often leads to disaster. It is time for Israelis to abandon such a path for their own sake and the sake of others!

20 Responses to “Reflections on the Abbas Statehood/Membership Speech to the UN General Assembly”

  1. Ray Joseph Cormier September 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    Professor Falk, if we live to be 100, we are still children to the God of Abraham. Every new article you write indicates you are only getting better on the road to maturity. This is very forthright writing.

    Once again the rumblings are rising in Israel to launch a 1st preemptive strike against Iran. Evidence confirming this near possibility is the fact the big bunker busting bombs have been transferred to Israel from the American arsenal.

    In making my comment in The Jerusalem Post on the subject, I was subjected to much of the same vitriol you have experienced in the past for speaking your Truth. I was called an Islamic Troll, a liar, deceiver, a Marxist–Islamoid, evil, and other names.

    What started it was posting words of the Prophet Ezekiel from the Torah. Obviously they were verses Israelis would prefer to ignore in favour of other verses in the Torah more to their liking.

    I wrote this article in my Blog a while ago,


    With this new development, I had to update, embedding a video clip from Apocalypse NOW.

    • Richard Falk September 30, 2011 at 5:03 am #

      Ray: You are right to be worried and vigilant about Israel’s menacing moves with respect to Iran. And because you are
      right, the furies will be after you. It was brave of you to enter the zone of combat via The Jerusalem Post, a self-appointed
      guardian of Israel’s sanctity.

      I will try to read your blog, but I am beset with pressures these days.

      Best wishes, Richard

      • Ray Joseph Cormier October 11, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

        Professor Falk, I made the following comment in The Jerusalem Post last Saturday and not one person has replied or commented yet. I think that’s unusual!

        As a Canadian, I rejoiced in my Spirit with the 7000 Jews in Toronto in May 2010 when I saw Prime Minister Netanyahu on the TV news say, “Let the Truth reign Supreme” the night before he woke up to the nightmare of the Mavi Marmara.

        In that Spirit I see the first two paragraphs of this article as being the Truth.

        There are many different verses in the Bible containing the history of the Jewish people in the Torah and the Common Era of Christ.

        Most people, Christians and Jews, choose to believe the ones they feel most comfortable with, ignoring many others calling for a change in heart, attitude and outlook.

        I read over and over again the refrain G_d gave the Jews this land. Palestinians out! The land is not given unconditionally by G_d.

        You shall not therefore oppress one another; but you shall fear your God: for I am the LORD your God.
        Wherefore you shall do my statutes, and keep my judgments, and do them; and you shall dwell in the land in safety.
        And the land shall yield her fruit, and he shall eat your fill, and dwell therein in safety.

        This excerpt from Leviticus 25, which is the basis for Jewish claims on the land Today, require a Jubilee be declared every 50 years and it is already 13 years overdue.

        It is wise to ignore these words of the Jewish Prophet Ezekiel?

        Son of man, they that inhabit those wastes of the land of Israel speak, saying, Abraham was one, and he inherited the land: but we are many; the land is given us for inheritance.
        Wherefore say unto them, Thus says the Lord GOD; You eat with the blood, and lift up your eyes toward your idols, and shed blood: and shall you possess the land?
        You stand upon your sword, you work abomination, and you defile every one his neighbour’s wife: and shall you possess the land?
        Say thus to them, Thus says the Lord GOD; As I live, surely
        they that are in the wastes shall fall by the sword, and him that is in the open field will I give to the beasts to be devoured, and they that be in the forts and in the caves shall die of the pestilence. Ezekiel 33

        But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
        Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:

        And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. Matthew 3

        O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kills the prophets, and stones them which are sent to you, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not!
        Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
        For I say to you, You shall not see me henceforth, till you shall say, Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord. Matthew 23.

        With the attitudes I see displayed here, I am more certain than ever, Israel and the world are being led by the 3 unclean spirits, devils and the false prophet of this letter from the Holy Book.

        And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.
        For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles,
        which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.
        Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.
        And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon. (Har Megiddo)
        Revelation 16

        This is such a tragedy when Israel is supposed to be a Blessing to the Nations instead of the astonishment it is becoming.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier October 11, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

        The Jerusalem Post article

  2. Richard Fairbanks September 29, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    Passion, compassion, and wisdom are a powerful triumvirate.

    Over the years, I have contemplated who might be the most positive, influential candidate for Secretary of State. With this post, you have widened your lead.

    What baffles me is your closing sentence. It is my interpretation that you are saying that Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the UN was sacrificing the necessary invocation of Justice for the long-neglected and abused People of Palestine, all for the goal of statehood.

    I agree that justice must never be compromised as we must never permit our children to learn that responsibility fo crimes (particularly against an entire People) may be negotiated for the sake of convenience. But I do not see such self-destructive extremism on the part of the Palestinians themselves (though I do in regard to the government of Israel). I request elucidation, should you have a moment, to assuage my concerns!

    Blessings, dear Brother, and thank you (yet again)!

    • sorayasulrich September 29, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

      Regrettably, those with high morals do not occupy the position of Secretary of State. That position in reserved for those without principles and available for purchase. Mr. Falk is indeed a most compassionate and wise individual. I hope that he will share his wisdom for years to come.

    • Richard Falk September 30, 2011 at 4:59 am #

      Thanks, Richard, not only for your generous assessment, but calling my attention to your bewilderment with
      my last sentence. I have corrected it. I made an awkward, if not embarrassing, slip. Please see if you find my
      re-write acceptable..

      with my greetings, and appreciation for your supportive words!

      • Richard Fairbanks September 30, 2011 at 10:20 am #

        Thank you for graciously ignoring my typo. as well! I refer to such slips as “the luxury of being human.”

        (I assumed that your correction was what you had intended, but I do not like to be so presumptuous! 😉 )

  3. Julie Webb-Pullman September 30, 2011 at 4:30 am #

    I too am bewildered by the final sentence – please clarify!!

    • Richard Falk September 30, 2011 at 4:54 am #

      Julie: thanks for the reminder. Read now. It was my regrettable mistake, and an awkward one at that!

      • monalisa September 30, 2011 at 5:55 am #

        Dear Richard,
        thank you for your thoughts and outline !
        I wonder if they will get forward to have their own country finally but I doubt it very very much !

        And you are so very right when you wrote in your last para:
        An acute problem with extremism, whether of the Likud or Tea Party variety, is that it subordinates interests and rationality to the dictates of an obsessive and emotive vision that is incapable of calculation the balance of gains and losses in conflict situations, being preoccupied with all or nothing outcomes …

        The “all or nothing” is the real problem I think !

        As nothing happened to the Israeli state, respectively its government, in the past while disobeying UNO resolutions and calls for a better behavour from other countries, so why should they consider it yet?
        Only cuts in support (whether military or money) will – maybe – get some positive results concerning Palestinians !

        Shouldn’t it be today that it will be the final decision released whether there will be a Palestinian state or not ?

        Concerning Iran, as above brought into thought and mentioned, there is, in my opinion, a good website:
        to click onto “Middle East” and then on “update”
        she had compiled a very good and almost complete information (so maybe the last years not so very much).

        Thank you, dear Richard, for all your efforts and I admire you that you still didn’t give up !


  4. john October 4, 2011 at 5:26 am #

    The israel/Palestinian issue has far more reaching effects and consequences than the most people know. billions of people are looking what is happening there..

    If the UN bid doesn’t pass violence will stir up again, people will think that’s the only way…

    • Richard Falk October 4, 2011 at 6:53 am #

      I fear that you are right, although violence plays into the hands of the occupier. It is where the imbalance between the two sides is greatest. I think the Palestinians have been learning this.

  5. Jose Luis October 8, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    Dear Richard,
    I really love your blog and your posts. Thank you for all your dedication to this issues, I am happy for that because you are colaborating for a better society. I just want to make a suggestion to you, could you talk about what do you think about the Security Council in the UN? Recently we saw the “anachronistic veto privilege by a member of the Security Council” that is trying to stop the palestinian Statehood/Membership. Some countries have privileges, what do you think? what must be changed? Lot of people would love to read an article of you about this.

    Thank you dear Richard, all my support for you!
    J. L. Cullcay (Ecuador)

    • Richard Falk October 9, 2011 at 7:46 am #

      Thanks, Jose Luis, and for the suggested post on the use and abuse of Security Council privileges given originally to the victorious states in World War II.

      with best wishes,


  6. Ronald Barbour October 21, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    I have just viewed your press conference related to your report on the Occupied Territories, and was shocked (again) by the tactics of special interest groups, via their media representatives, to re-direct discussion away from the content of the report and towards your personal character. It seemed to be another example of “AVOID THE MESSAGE BY ATTACKING THE MESSENGER”. I understand you must respond to these attacks and I think you did so very well. ….. but it would have been better if you recognized these questions as off-topic and encouraged questions to be based on your report.

    Regarding the off-topic questions (read insinuations) regarding your comments on the 9/11 report, I felt you could have turned the table by simply challenging the questioners as WHY they believe anyone should not raise the issues you believe should be addressed.

  7. Richard Falk October 2, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    Thanks, Monalisa, your support gives me the energy to persist despite the obstacles. I am a true believer in what I call sometimes ‘the politics of impossibility’ and other times ‘the politically unimaginable,’ in other words, escaping from the constraints of mind-numbing conventional wisdom.

    Thanks, also, just for being there, wherever there is!!!


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