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Abbas’ last hurrah?

The Palestinian leader’s UN speech marks the end of his political era

October 1, 2015 3:30PM ET

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed what most Palestinians have known for a long time: The 20-year-old Oslo Accord no longer holds any prospect of realizing its goal of ending the occupation by creating a Palestinian state at peace with Israel.

“So long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, cease settlement construction and release prisoners, Israel has left us no choice but to insist that we will not remain the only ones committed to these agreements,” he said.

His address not only marked the end of the Oslo legacy, but its admission of failure also likely marks the end of his own political career. The speech was likely the last time the moderate leader will appear before the world body. If so, he leaves with a clear message for peace without making concessions on Palestinian rights. It sounds like a speech of a leader looking for a bright place in the pages of history. 

Moderate and stubborn

The 80-year-old Abbas has been saying since 2009 that he doesn’t want to run for president. But Abbas’s closest aides now confirm that he plans to make his final exit in the coming months, most probably at the seventh congress of the Fatah movement on Nov. 29.

The late Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas are the only leaders the Palestinian Liberation Organization has known for half a century. Arafat juggled the armed struggle and the political process to bring attention to Palestinians, while Abbas, who signed the first Oslo Accord on behalf of Arafat the White House lawn in 1993, has been purely a diplomatic operative who proved more successful than Arafat in ending the decades-old Israeli occupation, despite rejecting the armed struggle favored by his predecessor.

Despite these failures, Abbas will be remembered as both a moderate leader but also a stubborn one. He remained committed to negotiations to conclude Oslo despite the mounting body of evidence that the Israelis were no longer interested, hoping that by continuing to offer himself as proof of the Israeli fallacy that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, he would convince western powers to pressure Israel to compromise.

The last two years have shown that Abbas is no longer willing to sustain the façade of a photo-opportunity peace process.

Between them, Abbas and Arafat brought Palestinians some of the trappings of statehood but without the crucial sovereignty, the right of return for refugees or a share of Jerusalem. Under Oslo, the population of Israelis illegally settled in the occupied West Bank has doubled. Meanwhile East Jerusalem has been isolated and its jewel the third holiest mosque in Islam has become a daily battleground with young Palestinians fighting off Israeli soldiers.

New blood is badly needed to struggle for a free Palestine that can bring energy and impetus that has been lacking in the current leadership.

So while Oslo created a mechanism of self-government in the form of the Palestinian Authority and a State of Palestine was recognized by the 2012 United Nations vote, none of that changed the reality of occupation on the ground. Further complicating a failed liberation strategy has been yet more attempts to use violent resistance against Israeli civilians by Hamas.

Because of the combination of failure from the Arafat-Abbas and Hamas strategies, Palestinian power is shifting from resolving the conflict with Israel by using the traditional channels toward pursuing more creative means of elevating the Palestinian cause. Palestinians living abroad who had expected to play a bigger role when the Palestine Liberation Organization was recognized by Israel and the world community have decided to fight on their own using nonviolent mechanisms such as boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) to put international pressure on Israel to come to terms with Palestinian rights, including the right of return.

Abbas will leave the political stage as a leader who helped initiate the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but saw it fail to materialize. The Oslo Accords have become Palestinians' worst nightmare: While Israelis allow them some measure of autonomy to administer and police the cities of the West Bank, the failure to achieve Palestinian statehood has meant the PA serves only to stabilize the occupation. 

A flag without a state

The expected retirement of Abbas ends the sad chapter called the Oslo Process without ending the legal and practical results of that process which include a powerless president, an ineffective legislative council with a highly effective security force that has little chance to survive if it fails to coordinate its activities with the powerful Israeli occupiers

Abbas also will be exiting at an extremely low point in support from the Arab and Muslim worlds, which are engulfed in the post-Arab Spring cycle of revolution, counter-revolution and a high dose of external players trying to decide the region’s future.

New blood is badly needed to struggle for a free Palestine that can bring energy and impetus that has been lacking in the current leadership. A post-Abbas strategy will similarly need to unify Palestinians behind a clear strategy with achievable goals. This will require reaching some kind of new modus operandi that will include popular movements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that have established themselves outside of the PLO umbrella, as well as channeling the tremendous energies of Palestinians in the diaspora.

After his speech, Abbas raised the Palestinian flag at the UN’s New York headquarters. This is both a happy and sad occasion. It marks the world recognition of the people and the nation of Palestine and its unalienable right to self-determination. But at the same time, to raise the flag while Palestine continues to be subject to a decades-old occupation, with millions of its people scattered around the world without any hope for independence, is depressing.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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