The soft-spoken gentleman seated in front of me in the Grand Hall of The Cooper Union had seen this song and dance before and was not in any hurry for the show to get started. He’d been through this sort of affair countless times; the waiting, the hand-shaking, the photo ops (which he declined), and the crowd’s growing anxiety felt no more urgent or exciting than a fly buzzing lazily around your head.
When the man of the evening finally reached the stage, he delivered his words in the joltingly harsh style of one breaking his teeth over foreign ideas in an alien tongue.
The podium upon which Mahmoud Abbas leaned has, over centuries, become a launchpad for radical ideas from the likes of Abraham Lincoln and the founders of the NAACP. However, on this particular evening, neither the career diplomat seated in front of me who had been around since Arafat, nor anyone else familiar with the aging figurehead came to Cooper Union’s Great Hall with the expectation of hearing anything particularly revolutionary.
“End the occupation. Make peace. We do not want anything more!” The Palestinian Authority president cried to tepid applause.
He spoke of my generation, particularly those in groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (a group none too fond of him) and J Street as the true “seeds of peace”.
Whoever is writing his speeches these days was clearly under the impression that passé references to the terrible acts of 9/11 were more important to us than tangible prospects for bringing about that peace; Abbas mentioned the former nearly half a dozen times and gave nothing in the way of the latter.
Abbas’s message was clear: Israel is the oppressor, Palestine is the oppressed, and the US, though he thanked both President Obama and Secretary Kerry, is letting Israel run reckless.
To Abbas, the people of Palestine’s biggest problem is not government corruption, skyrocketing poverty in solidly PA or Hamas-controlled areas, nor rebuilding Gaza, but rather, Israeli settlement expansion. Though settlement expansion in both Israel and the US is controversial, and as I expressed in my unfortunately accurate prediction of this summer’s conflict, the issue of settlement expansion pales in comparison to the ugly realities of life under a divided, corrupt, and abusive government in Palestine.
A long denier of the Holocaust, Abbas is no stranger to sensationalism. Monday’s speech, however, was remarkable in that it wasn’t. Given the ailing leader’s halfheartedness and his party’s overall impotence, it should come as no surprise that Palestinian support for the Palestinian Authority stood at 36 percent approval compared to 88 percent for Hamas, according to a poll conducted in August by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research. At least Hamas, which Abbas didn’t feel worth mentioning, can get things done.
Abbas concluded his speech by calling for building “bridges instead of walls,” but I fear the chasm between Abbas’s fantasyland and reality is far too deep and too wide for that to be possible.
Perhaps his address to the UN come Friday will deliver something more tangible, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.
Abbas is stuck in dreamland; don’t expect him to wake up.