Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ much-hyped speech at the UN General Assembly last week has failed to impress even his staunchest supporters. It was not the first time that the 82-year-old Palestinian leader had addressed the world body. On previous occasions he had pleaded the case of his people, made veiled threats to disband his embattled Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and hinted that he was ready to withdraw recognition of Israel and designate the West Bank and Gaza Strip a state under occupation. He had also vowed to take Israel to international courts. Last Friday’s speech was more of the same with one important difference: Abbas appeared on the verge of giving up on the two-state solution.
Abbas said the following: “… if the two-state solution were to be destroyed due to the creation of a one-state reality with two systems — apartheid — from the unchecked imposition of this occupation that is rejected by our people and the world, this would be a failure, and neither you, nor we, will have any other choice but to continue the struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine.”
Today the one-state scenario is the more likely outcome of Israel’s continued colonisation of West Bank territory. Occupied east Jerusalem has already been physically separated from the rest of the occupied West Bank, while the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is actively approving the building of thousands of new units in existing illegal colonies, in addition to giving the go-ahead for a new colony near Nablus. A few weeks ago Netanyahu was the clearest yet in his rejection of the two-state option. Marking the 50th anniversary of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, an elated Netanyahu told 1,500 Jewish colonists in the Barkan colony the following: “We are here to stay, forever. There will be no more uprooting of settlements [colonies] in the land of Israel. We are guarding Samaria against those who want to uproot us.”
While Abbas mentioned the two-state solution 13 times during his UN speech, in contrast Netanyahu did not once refer to it when his turn came to take to the General Assembly podium. The only mention of peace came when he said: “Israel is committed to achieving peace with all our Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians.” That was it. The rest of his speech was dedicated to extolling Israeli achievements, as well as his own, and to shift attention to the Iranian menace.
Abbas is clinging to a thin hope that the US administration would eventually come up with a plan that would embrace the two-state option even though he himself had admitted that the American team handling the case; Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, could not commit publicly to that option. To say that the trio is biased in favour of Netanyahu personally would be an understatement. Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is about to unveil the White House’s plan to restart negotiations and reach what was dubbed as the “ultimate deal”. But all signs point to a big disappointment on the part of Abbas and his aides.
The White House is expected to move along two parallel paths: Resumption of bilateral negotiations and acceleration of Arab-Israeli normalisation. There will be no dismantling of colonies, not even a freeze. There is talk about a revised self-rule for the Palestinians, with economic incentives and a push towards an inevitable confederation with Jordan based on sovereignty over people and not land. The lines between what the Israeli far right is calling for and what the US administration is likely to embrace will be blurred.
Abbas, who has been involved in secret and public negotiations with Israel for almost three decades, knows that what he and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, could not win in the past, when political conditions were much more favourable, is almost impossible to achieve today.
Israel will not withdraw from the West Bank nor will it give up an inch of occupied east Jerusalem. It will not dismantle colonies and may even go as far as give up Arab majority towns in Israel itself. It will not accept the return of a single Palestinian refugee and will push for the naturalisation of refugees in host countries. The contours and much of the substance of the Israeli scheme are clear. Abbas remains in self-denial.
The one-state option is a precious last card that he must be ready to play. If Israel is unwilling to recognise an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel, then yes he should accept that the only viable alternative would be one state for all in historic Palestine. The price of giving up on the two-state solution should be hefty for Israel and by extension the world and not only the Palestinians. But Abbas must be willing to take the risk and turn his veiled threats and promises into reality. For once the Palestinians should be prepared to act and not react. The sad truth is that the two-state option is now off the table for good!
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.