Q&A: Abbas’s UN “Bombshell”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had promised a “bombshell” in his speech to the UN on September 30, after which the Palestinian flag was to be raised at UN headquarters in New York for the first time. “We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel,” Abbas said in his speech — referring to the Oslo Peace Accords, the basis for the peace process — “and Israel must assume fully all its responsibilities as an occupying power.”
Moment spoke with Nathan Thrall, senior analyst with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group, via email about the implications of Abbas’s announcement and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Was this a bombshell? Did Abbas “cancel” the Oslo Accords?
Abbas promised a bombshell and delivered a dud. Palestinians were extremely disappointed, feeling that Abbas had promised something novel and significant but instead reiterated worn talking points with which the world is quite familiar. Abbas has threatened too many times to count that he may dissolve the Palestinian Authority, “hand the keys” of the Palestinian Authority to Israel, and call on Israel to administer and reoccupy all of the West Bank. In his speech at the UN yesterday, Abbas went somewhat further than he had before; rather than threatening a future and conditional possibility, he sought to hint at something more inevitable and imminent. Still, his words — “we will not remain the only ones committed” to the Oslo agreements and “we cannot continue to be bound” by them — fall short of declaring the Oslo accords canceled. Instead, they constitute yet another threat in a long series of them.
It’s worth noting that in the very same speech in which Abbas supposedly called on Israel to take over the West Bank, he also asked that Israel do the opposite: commit to the agreements it has already signed. During the speech, he heralded Palestinian progress in building a state at the same time as he issued a veiled threat to dismantle that state. In conversations with diplomats in recent months, one of Abbas’s main demands has been that Israel implement past agreements, especially the Paris Protocol and the Wye River Memorandum, yet in the speech he also threatened to cease abiding by these agreements. Immediately after the speech, he helped lead a ceremony to raise the flag of the Palestinian state-in-the-making that he had just called on Israel to reoccupy. All of this suggests someone who is either genuinely confused about what he wants or is making threats he has no intention of carrying out.
What would have constituted a bombshell announcement from Abbas?
A true bombshell would have been an announcement of the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority or the end of security collaboration with the Israeli army in the West Bank.
Before Abbas’s speech, where did the Oslo Accords stand? Has Israel violated the agreements in the way he described? Have the Palestinians?
The Oslo Accords were meant to be implemented during a “transitional” period of 5 years, ending in 1999 with the creation of a Palestinian State. That didn’t happen, and the so-called “transitional” arrangements have continued, to this day, to dictate every aspect of Palestinian governance, taxation, imports and exports, cooperation with Israel, and Palestinian and Israel jurisdiction and responsibilities in the West Bank. In his speech, Abbas mentioned only a few of the ways in which Israel has violated the agreements, including by entering West Bank areas ostensibly under full PA jurisdiction on a nightly basis. In fact, both Palestinians and Israelis have violated numerous aspects of the past agreements to which they had previously committed. For example, the Oslo II agreement prohibits any individual or organization under Palestinian jurisdiction, other than the Israeli Army and the Palestinian police, from possessing weapons, yet this edict was never implemented, especially in Gaza. Likewise, Israel never completed the West Bank territorial withdrawals it committed to undertake in the Wye River Memorandum. Despite violations on both sides, the Oslo agreements are still the foundation of the entire system of Palestinian limited self-rule and they constrain and largely dictate the behavior of both the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority.
Does this change anything about Palestinian policy in practice?
For the time being, no. Last March, the PLO Central Council (which is not the PLO’s highest decision-making body) voted to recommend the suspension of Palestinian security collaboration with Israel, but the decision was never implemented. Abbas alluded to that decision in his speech, saying it was still “binding.” If Abbas ever ends security cooperation with Israel, that would be a dramatic change, but it is a step he is highly unlikely to take, because security cooperation is among the central functions of the Palestinian Authority, and without it Israel would not allow the PA to exist in its current form. Frustrated as Abbas is with the current situation, he is not prepared to dismantle the Palestinian Authority. Every power possessed by the PA is granted to it by virtue of the Oslo agreements, so Abbas has no way of canceling Oslo while keeping the PA.
What does (or doesn’t) this mean for the peace process?
It means very little for the now-dormant peace process. The Quartet met after Abbas’s speech and reiterated its commitment to a negotiated settlement. Behind the scenes, Palestinians and Israelis are always talking to one another about how to reach a settlement or how to restart negotiations to reach one.
What does this mean for Abbas’s future as a leader?
Palestinians have been anticipating the 80-year-old leader’s departure from political life for several years now. In recent months, speculation has been growing that his years-old vows to resign are more serious now. Whatever Abbas’s intentions — he did not mention the issue of his resignation in his speech — biology will eventually fulfill the promises he has so far been reluctant to realize.