Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly on Thursday in New York.
While Netanyahu spent most of his speech boasting of Israel’s raid on an alleged secret Iranian nuclear facility, railing into the Obama-administration’s Iran deal, and criticizing Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon, Abbas presented a lackluster criticism of Israel, the Trump administration, and the international community.
Abbas, who spoke prior to Netanyahu, began his address by saying “We will remain believers in peace. We will maintain peace and we will arrive at our independent state through peace because God is with us, our issue is just, our people sacrificed a lot and you all are supporters of peace.”
He framed his address as a plea to the international community to help the Palestinian people, living under a 51-year occupation, achieve freedom and peace.
“I return to you today as this colonial occupation continues to suffocate us and to undermine our serious efforts to build the institutions of our cherished State, which this revered General Assembly recognized in the year 2012,” he said.
Abbas mentioned that he was instructed by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to essentially cancel the Oslo Accord and “suspend the Palestinian recognition of Israel until Israel recognizes the State of Palestine on the 4 June 1967 borders.” He, however, remained vague on his actual stance on the issue and whether he would be willing to make such a move.
Nation State law
After mentioning ongoing settler attacks against Palestinians and their holy sites, Abbas dove into criticism of the widely-condemned Nation State law passed by Israel’s parliament in July.
“This law denies the connection of the Palestinian people to their historic homeland and dismisses their right to self-determination and their history and heritage, as well as the United Nations resolutions relevant to the Palestine question and the agreements concluded with Israel,” Abbas said.
He continued, saying the law stripped the Palestinian citizens of Israel — who number around 20% of Israel’s population — of their rights, and would “inevitably lead to the creation of one racist state, an apartheid state, and nullifies the two-state solution.”
Voicing a position expressed by many Palestinian citizens of Israel who say they are treated as “second-class citizens,” Abbas said the Nation-State law was only enshrining a longstanding practice of racism within the country.
He compared the current state of affairs in Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, pleading with the international community and the member states of the UN “to act to reject it and condemn it as a racist, illegal law and deem it null and void, just as the United Nations condemned apartheid South Africa in several resolutions in the past.”
‘We can’t be racist because…’
On the other hand, after spending more than half his speech on Iran and Hezbollah, Netanyahu refuted any “absurd” accusations of racism by Abbas with a series of argumentative cliches.
He started off by saying that Israel could not be racist because it “airlifted Ethiopian Jews to freedom and a new life in Israel, in the Jewish state.”
“Israel’s Arab citizens vote in our elections, serve in our parliament, preside over our courts, and have exactly the same individual rights as all other Israeli citizens. Yet here at the UN, Israel is shamefully accused of apartheid,” he continued.
Netanyahu continued to paint a rosy picture of life in Israel for Palestinian citizens, despite a documented history of police brutality against Palestinians in Israel, lack of basic services and economic opportunities in Palestinian villages, and the fact that not a single new Palestinian community has been built in Israel since 1948, compared to hundreds of new Jewish communities.
Rights groups have said that over the years, between 40-60% of historically Palestinian-owned land has been confiscated by the state for Jewish use, and that in Israel proper, there are around 928 settlements that exist exclusively for Jews, or have a very small minority of non-Jews living there.
But Netanyahu pressed on, saying that Israel cannot be accused of ethnic cleansing, because “today, there are at least five times as many Palestinians as there were in 1948,” a phenomenon that is likely more significant of normal trends in population growth than Israel’s nurturing of it’s Palestinian population.
The ‘new anti-Semitism’
Reverting to an old favorite trope of his right-wing government, Netanyahu went on to conflate Palestinian grievances with the Nation State law, and general criticism of Israel as an increasingly racist and apartheid state as anti-Semitism.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, you know what this is? It’s the same old anti-Semitism with a brand new face. That’s all it is,” he told the audience of delegates.
He continued: “Once, it was the Jewish people that were slandered and held to a different standard. Today, it’s the Jewish state that is slandered and held to a different standard.”
Netanyahu went on to allege that criticisms of Israel and the Nation State law were anti-Semitic, because other countries have religious symbols on their flags and have singular official languages, but “none of those countries are denigrated or libeled for celebrating their unique national identity. Only Israel is denigrated. Only Israel is libeled.”
Praise and condemnation of Trump’s America
In both of their speeches, Abbas and Netanyahu addressed their starkly different perspectives on the US foreign policy in the region under President Trump.
Abbas began his criticism of Trump by stating that since he took office, Palestinian leaders have upheld the “same positive engagement” that they have practiced over the years on the international stage in regards to the peace process.
“We awaited his peace initiative with utmost patience, but were shocked by decisions and actions he undertook that completely contradict the role and commitment of the United States towards the peace process,” Abbas said.
The Palestinian President went on to list all the measure Trump has taken against the Palestinians over the past year, including the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the defunding of UNRWA.
“All such decisions threaten the Palestinian national cause and constitute an assault on international law and relevant United Nations resolutions,” he said.
Abbas criticized Trump’s policies as having “undermined the two-state solution” and called Trump’s “deal of the century” “ironic,” asking “what is left for this administration to give to the Palestinian people? Humanitarian solutions?”
He continued: “When Jerusalem, refugees, security and other issues are removed from the table, what is left that can be provided to us as a part of a political solution for the Middle East?”
Abbas criticized the US as an unfair arbiter of the peace process that is biased towards Israel, a belief that has long been held by Palestinian citizens and activists.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu offered up high praises for the Trump and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, for their “unwavering support they’ve provided Israel at the UN. They have unequivocally backed Israel’s right to defend itself.”
His comments were received with applause and a standing ovation from the Israeli delegation at the Assembly.
“Day after day, the Trump administration has stood up to what has long been a specialty here at the UN—slandering Israel,” he said, after praising the US’ exit from what Netanyahu called a “morally bankrupt” UN Human Rights Council and a “history-denying” UNESCO.
“They stopped funding, President Trump and Ambassador Haley, they stopped funding an unreformed UNRWA, an organization that instead of solving the Palestinian refugee problem, perpetuates it,” he continued.
In the conclusion of their addresses, Netanyahu and Abbas put forward two very different versions of their ideas of achieving peace.
“As long as you recognize the State of Israel and the two states, why do you not recognize me?” Abbas asked the Assembly.
He called on the international community to recognize Palestinian statehood, but rejected the idea of boycotting participation in peace negotiations, saying “that does not mean we will not go to negotiations, but rather it strengthens the international political position for us to go to negotiations with your support.”
Abbas went on to note that “Israel, the occupying power, has not implemented any single resolution of the hundreds of resolutions adopted by the Security Council,” citing 705 General Assembly resolutions and 86 Security Council resolutions from 1947 until today, saying “not one resolution has been implemented” by Israel, with the backing of the US.
“How long will Israel remain outside the rule of law, fooling around and rebelling as it wants?” he asked.
Abbas reassured the international community that the Palestinians will not resist the occupation violently, stating over and over again his belief in peaceful resistance.
Despite hopes that Abbas would focus on the case of Khan al-Ahmar, and drive home the importance of preventing Israel from demolishing the West Bank Bedouin community, he devoted only a few sentences to the issue, saying “if the village is destroyed, the unity of the West Bank will be destroyed, dividing it between the north and south.”
While Abbas droned on about his government’s commitment to peace and non-violence as a reason for support from the international community, Netanyahu railed on Abbas for “proudly paying Palestinian terrorists who murder Jews,” referring to the PA pension program for the families of Palestinian political prisoners.
“This is not the way to peace. This is not the way to achieve the peace we all want and need and to which Israel remain committed. This body should not be applauding the head of a regime that pays terrorists. The UN should condemn such a despicable policy,” Netanyahu said.
Both Abbas and Netanyahu mentioned Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, in their addresses, with Abbas criticizing Hamas for not upholding its end of the national reconciliation agreement, and Netanyahu calling on Hamas to release the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014, and two Israeli citizens who have been held in Gaza since.