It was perhaps the longest speech given at the opening session of the Palestine National Council (PNC). Mahmoud Abbas’ speech in Ramallah on April 30 extended till the late hours, spanning nearly three hours of continuous uninterrupted talk. Although no one would admit it, it was clearly Abbas’ goodbye talk.
It took 22 years to hold a regular session of the PNC and, therefore, it is no surprise that the 83-year-old Palestinian leader is unlikely to attend another PNC, at least not in the position of president.
No new position was declared, and Abbas did not say anything new or different. He repeated his standard positions and insisted, without saying so, to remind everyone of what he stands for, namely negotiations, peaceful resistance and the need to work with Israeli peace groups.
He lashed out again at the US but told the 605 delegates, who easily made quorum of the PNC’s 741 members, that he will be careful not to use any nasty language. During his last speech at the Palestinian Central Council, he cursed the American ambassador to Israel, calling him the Palestinian lingo of ibn al kalb, “the son of a dog”.
While Abbas clearly felt the need to clean up his language, he felt no such need when it came to delving into the history of the region. It is not clear why he felt the need to tackle the issue of anti-Semitism, but his attempt at rewriting history was not very successful. He tried to claim that anti-Semitism was not about the Jews but about a particular economic group, but his dabbling with history was the cherry-picking style, where you choose certain authors and statements that fit your argument without any attempt at putting them in context. In his attempt to debunk anti-Semitism, Abbas tried to quote Jewish authors but never really presented a coherent well-crafted argument. He repeatedly mistook names speaking about Stalin as being Jewish, until someone corrected him that he meant Karl Marx. He began his historical monologue by saying that Moshe Levy was the only Israeli to have agreed with his last speech. Again, he had to be corrected that the maverick pro-Palestinian Haaretz columnist is Gideon Levy and not Moshe Levy.
Historical narratives aside, Mahmoud Abbas was happy to see the Ahmad Shuqeiri hall full of delegates, even though their average age was around 65. He argued that if this PNC meeting were not held, the foundation and the legitimacy of the Palestinian national movement would have been shaken. Those who came from outside Palestine, including some who come for the first time, hailed the decision to hold the PNC in Ramallah and argued that having the session in any nearby country would have weakened the independence of Palestinian decision making.
While he rambled on way too long, Abbas was clearly enjoying the setting and the people and wanted them all to know in great detail why various decisions were made and that Palestinians do want to find a negotiated solution with Israel that includes America, only not as a sole sponsor of any talks.
Although the PNC is likely to elect new and relatively younger members to help guide the Palestinian movement in the coming years, it is clear that Mahmoud Abbas was celebrating the accomplishments made by his government on Palestinian soil rather than spending any time talking about the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its historic past.
The PLO will continue to exist and be given the role of a national reference to Palestinian policy and decision making, but if anything can be deduced from the meetings in Ramallah, it is that the PLO is nothing more than an empty shell which Abbas and his team will use perfectly to defend their actions and policies. To that end, the PLO will be gutted of its large personnel and budget, especially in the departments that have a parallel in the Palestinian government.
The 23rd session of the PNC was successful in terms of organising and the attendance, but it is unlikely to reflect any major change in Palestinian strategy and direction simply because there are hardly any new openings with the current leaders in Tel Aviv and Washington.
Mahmoud Abbas may have given his last PNC speech on Monday night, but he will not exit the political scene anytime soon. The newly-elected executive committee will reflect newer and younger faces, and the PNC session has given life and legitimacy to an aging organisation and an aging leader. For the time being, though, the only area of movement will be in building the foundation of a Palestinian state, brick by brick. This might be the legacy that Abbas will leave to the next generations.