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The story behind Abbas’s historic speech to the UN | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – This is the story of a speech that shook up the world; a speech that had been eagerly awaited by millions, at home and abroad; a speech that returned long-lost confidence to an entire people. I am, of course, talking about the historic speech delivered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the United Nations [UN] General Assembly on 23 September, 2011, after he formally submitted an application for recognition to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

This speech returned the Palestinian issue to its natural domain, the world stage, and put the Palestinian Cause on the right path once more, particularly as it was UN resolution 181 [United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine] that divided the country. This speech shocked the Palestinians, Arabs, and indeed the entire watching world, in its language, boldness, and clarity. It touched the hearts and minds of every Palestinian and Arab who witnessed that historic moment, namely Palestine applying for UN recognition, and represented a glimmer of hope to all those who dream of a free and independent state of Palestine and an end to the Palestinian – Israeli conflict. Abbas’s eloquent speech denounced US and Israeli intransigence, defined the suffering of the Palestinian people, and stressed that Palestine has every right to request UN-membership, something that Washington had threatened to veto.

This was a pivotal speech that was warmly received across the world, quenching the thirst of those in the occupied territories, and even being greeted and welcomed by Abbas’s fiercest political opponents, Hamas. Abbas’s speech brought the flagging Palestinian leader back into the political equation, and raised his profile across the Arab world, after many had given up on him.

A lot of work went into the historic speech that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered before the UN General Assembly on 23 September, the speech went through several drafts, and was collaborated on by a dozen or so senior Palestinian officials with regards to its content, as well as its tone, language, and rhetoric.

The first draft of this speech, which Abbas told Asharq Al-Awsat gave him many sleepless nights, was the result of concerted effort on the part of a group of the Palestinian president’s closest advisers. This draft of the speech focused upon laying the foundations and signposts of Abbas’s extraordinary address, and was drawn up just days before the Palestinian delegation flew to New York.

According to information obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, a relatively small group of Palestinian officials and political figures were responsible for drawing up the first draft of Abbas’s famous speech, including:

– Akram Haniyeh, Editor-in-Chief of Ramallah-based Al-Ayyam newspaper. He is an eloquent writer who has been described as the man in the shadows, for his aversion to appearing in the media. He served as political advisor to Arafat, and participated in the July 2000 Camp David Talks, writing a book about his experience entitled “The Camp David Papers”. He has accompanied Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on every trip to America, and was reportedly making final changes to Abbas’s speech up until the very last minute.

– Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior member of Fatah’s Central Committee. He is one of Abbas’s closest confidants and ran his 2005 presidential election campaign. He also accompanied Abbas to New York, and was the Palestinian official chosen to first announce that Palestine would seek full UN membership at a press conference in Ramallah.

– Qais Abdul Karim AKA Abu Leila, the most senior member of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine [DFLP] in the Palestinian territories. He is a Palestinian-Iraqi intellectual who has lived in the West Bank since the signing of the Oslo Accords.

– Nimr Hammad, Palestinian presidential aide. He was Palestinian Authority ambassador to Italy, who retired after Abbas took office, becoming one of the Palestinian president’s closest advisers.

However another group of Palestinian politicians and lawmakers must also be mentioned, and they worked behind the scenes on the wording and tone of Abbas’s momentous speech. This second group considered each single word and sentence of Abbas’s speech, even working on it during the 14-hour flight to New York. This speech was in a constant state of revision and adjustment, up until even the very last minutes before Abbas took to the stage before the UN General Assembly.

Here we must mention the Palestinian President’s Chief of Protocol, Hussein Hussein, who worked on each draft of the speech, perfecting its language and tone. He would print out copies of each draft of the speech and distribute this to the Palestinian officials collaborating with him, and Abbas’s speech went through several drafts in this manner.

In addition to the Palestinian officials and figures mentioned above, particularly Akram Haniyeh, Mohammed Shtayyeh, and Hussein Hussein, a number of other Palestinian officials and lawmakers collaborated in amending and revising drafts of this speech until the last minute, including:

– Saeb Erekat, chief negotiation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He is also a member of the Fatah Central Committee, and was responsible for negotiating the Oslo Accords with Israel. He is one of the most prominent Palestinian spokesmen in the Western media.

– Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of the Fatah Central Committee. He is a former Palestinian Minister of Public Works and Housing, and headed the Fatah delegation during the inter-Palestinian reconciliation talks in Cairo earlier this year.

– Nabil Shaath, a member of the Fatah Central Committee. He is a senior Palestinian official who has held a number of prominent roles over the years. He was the former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s speechwriter, and was responsible for Arafat’s most famous speech to the UN in 1974, during which the Palestinian leader said “I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

– Nabil Abu Rudeina, presidential spokesman and member of Fatah Central Committee.

– Ahmed Tibi, Arab – Israeli Knesset MP and leader of the Ta’al [Arab Movement for Renewal] party in Israel. He is Abbas’s advisor on Israeli affairs, and accompanied Abbas and the Palestinian delegation to New York.

– Yasser Abed Rabbo, Secretary of the PLO Executive Committee. He is one of the founders of the “Third Way” political party and an adviser to Abbas.

– Majdi al-Khalidi, Abbas’s diplomatic adviser. He is a man of few words who has been described as a high-ranking Palestinian Foreign Ministry official.

– Hanan Ashrawi, former Palestinian negotiation and member of the legislative council. She is a Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar, who played an important role during the First Intifada, serving as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East peace process. She was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2003.

In short, every single word, sentence, and paragraph of Abbas’s 51 minute speech – which received 13 rounds of applause and 3 standing ovations – was subject to intense scrutiny, being carefully reviewed and edited, with regards to content, nuance, and tone. Asharq Al-Awsat was an eye-witness to this entire process, from the drafting and re-drafting of the speech on the flight to New York, to the amendments and fine-tuning of the language and tone of Abbas’s historic speech at the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel. This speech was acknowledged as being one of the most eloquent and moving speeches ever given on Palestine since the beginning of negotiations 20 years ago, incalculably advancing the Palestinian Cause across the world.

The following are some extracts of Abbas’s historic speech:

“We aspire for and seek a greater and more effective role for the United Nations in working to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in our region that ensures the inalienable, legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people as defined by the resolutions of international legitimacy of the United Nations.”

“Settlement activities embody the core of the policy of colonial military occupation of the land of the Palestinian people and all of the brutality of aggression and racial discrimination against our people that this policy entails.

“This policy, which constitutes a breach of international humanitarian law and United Nations resolutions, is the primary cause for the failure of the peace process, the collapse of dozens of opportunities, and the burial of the great hopes that arose from the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993 between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel to achieve a just peace that would begin a new era for our region.”

“Yet, because we believe in peace and because of our conviction in international legitimacy, and because we had the courage to make difficult decisions for our people, and in the absence of absolute justice, we decided to adopt the path of relative justice – justice that is possible and could correct part of the grave historical injustice committed against our people.”

“The goal of the Palestinian people is the realisation of their inalienable national rights in their independent State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the land of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in the June 1967 war, in conformity with the resolutions of international legitimacy and with the achievement of a just and agreed upon solution to the Palestine refugee issue in accordance with Resolution 194, as stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative which presented the consensus Arab vision to resolve the core the Arab-Israeli conflict and to achieve a just and comprehensive peace.”

“I am here to say on behalf of the Palestinian people and the Palestine Liberation Organization: We extend our hands to the Israeli government and the Israeli people for peacemaking. I say to them: Let us urgently build together a future for our children where they can enjoy freedom, security and prosperity.

“Let us build the bridges of dialogue instead of checkpoints and walls of separation, and build cooperative relations based on parity and equity between two neighbouring States – Palestine and Israel – instead of policies of occupation, settlement, war and eliminating the other.”

“The time has come for our men, women and children to live normal lives, for them to be able to sleep without waiting for the worst that the next day will bring; for mothers to be assured that their children will return home without fear of suffering killing, arrest or humiliation; for students to be able to go to their schools and universities without checkpoints obstructing them. The time has come for sick people to be able to reach hospitals normally, and for our farmers to be able to take care of their good land without fear of the occupation seizing the land and its water, which the wall prevents access to, or fear of the settlers, for whom settlements are being built on our land and who are uprooting and burning the olive trees that have existed for hundreds of years. The time has come for the thousands of prisoners to be released from the prisons to return to their families and their children to become a part of building their homeland, for the freedom of which they have sacrificed.”