September 27, 2011

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ moving speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Friday was certainly the high point of his career. His address will be forever remembered because Abbas was able to do what no Palestinian leader has ever done in the past: make the moral case for Palestinian independence in a clear, coherent, reasonable manner at the highest international forum.

Most importantly, Abbas’ message was internationally receivable. Only the most recalcitrant supporters of the Israeli occupation could fail to have been moved by his words. Many in the room, including some jaded individuals, were left in tears.

This was the speech the late President Yasser Arafat never gave, missing two key opportunities to do so. In his first address to the General Assembly in 1974, Arafat appeared as a belligerent revolutionary speaking about holding a gun in one hand and an olive branch in the other. His comments were well-received among many Arabs and others in the Third World, but they played right into the hands of those who sought to depict him as a violent terrorist. Arafat’s speech at the Oslo Agreements signing ceremony at the White House in 1993 was rambling, semi-coherent and downright boring.

Abbas’ speech on Friday did for the Palestinian cause what Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver did for Zionism and Israeli statehood in a powerful UN speech in 1947. This was especially true of his closing remarks, in which Silver said that the Jewish people were “no less deserving” of statehood than others. Abbas’ speech also echoed the 1993 White House speech of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in which he said the conflict must end, emphasizing the word “enough."

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“We knew at the outset that the task would be difficult. We acknowledged that publicly and privately. We knew this would be a road with many bumps— and there have been many bumps—and that continues to this day. But we are not deterred. We are, to the contrary, determined more than ever to proceed to realize the common objective, which we all share, of a Middle East that is at peace with security and prosperity for the people of Israel, for Palestinians, and for all the people in the region. We will continue our efforts in that regard, undeterred and undaunted by the difficulties, the complexities or the bumps in the road.”—George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East peace, remarks with Prime Minister Netanyahu, September 29, 2010

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