This was a disturbing and dangerous week at the United Nations. After all the drama leading up to this session of the General Assembly, we come away with three troubling facts clearly established: the Palestinians, despite a valiant effort, are no closer to a state; the Israelis are more isolated, yet more emboldened than before; while the United States emerges from the week weaker and less trusted as a world leader.
It was a week of speeches and exhausting meetings and deliberations over what to do about the Palestinian bid for statehood. In a way, it was the speeches that told the story. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered what must have been, literally, the speech of his life. It was a powerful, personal, and passionate retelling of the Palestinian narrative: from dispossession, dispersal and occupation to standing on the threshold of statehood. It was broadcast live, on split screen, showing the U.N. chamber, on one side, and the crowd in Ramallah's Arafat Square, on the other. Abbas' remarks were repeatedly interrupted by applause. It was a speech worthy of the moment, and when he held up the copy of his letter to the Secretary General petitioning Palestinian statehood, both audiences erupted in cheers.
President Abbas was followed by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who used his remarks to both claim Jewish rights to all of Judea and Samaria, while still insisting on his interest in a negotiated peace. Netanyahu is a world-class prevaricator, with this quality on display throughout his remarks. For example, to make his case that peace was not possible with the Palestinians, he relied on the well-worn canard that two former Israeli Prime Ministers offered generous peace deals that were rejected by Palestinians. In fact, negotiations in 2001 with Ehud Barak were terminated by the Israeli side due to upcoming elections, which Barak lost; and the “offer” made by former prime minister Ehud Olmert was never seen as serious, since he was under indictment, had only a few weeks left in office, had a 6% favorable rating, and, therefore, couldn't have closed the deal, even if the Palestinians had accepted it. Netanyahu also repeated the fiction that when Israel left Gaza “we handed the keys to Mahmoud Abbas”, when in fact they did no such thing. Israel left Gaza unilaterally and, despite the entreaties of the U.S. and Europeans, refused to coordinate their departure with the Palestinian Authority, paving the way for chaos and ultimately a Hamas take-over.
When Netanyahu wasn't distorting history, he was indulging in inflammatory incitement, as in this passage where he criticized his “critics” who:
“[C]ontinue to press Israel to make far-reaching concessions without first assuring Israel's security. They praise those who unwittingly feed the insatiable crocodile of militant Islam as bold statesmen. They cast as enemies of peace those of us who insist that we must first erect a sturdy barrier to keep the crocodile out, or at the very least jam an iron bar between its gaping jaws.”
What was striking was the stone dead silence that greeted Netanyahu's remarks (this was not, after all, the U.S. Congress), until the Israeli delegation came to life and began to play dutiful cheerleaders to their team's captain.
The most disturbing performance of the week, however, belonged to U.S. President Barack Obama. His speech began with a marvelous recap of the raison d’être and history of the United Nations, unintentionally serving as a convincing reminder, to those who listened, as to why the world body was, in fact, the proper venue for the resolution of the Palestine Question. Having laid out the case for the U.N., the President made a sharp pivot attempting to argue why Palestine was the exception.
When Obama described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this 2011 speech, one could not help but note how different his presentation was from his two earlier addresses before the General Assembly (not to mention his stirring 2009 Cairo University address). The sufferings of the Jews and the insecurity of Israel were laid out in detail, without any mention of the trials and tribulations of the Palestinians. His single-minded embrace of the Israeli narrative was so convincing that Netanyahu awarded him “a badge of honor”, while Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman enthusiastically announced that he would “sign on” to the speech “with both hands”.
U.S. commentary on Obama's speech understood, all too well, what had taken place at the U.N. The definitive political newsletter The Hotline placed its report on the President's remarks under a heading referring to the 2012 Presidential campaign. With Obama's Republican opponents attacking him, the President was, it appeared, using the speech to buttress his support among American Jewish voters. Indeed, the President's performance at the U.N. was preceded by harshly critical comments from two of his GOP opponents. Mitt Romney, for one, reiterated his charge that “Obama had thrown Israel under the bus”; while Texas Governor Rick Perry came to New York and flanked by Israeli and Republican Jewish leaders accused the President of pursuing a Middle East policy that was “naïve, arrogant, misguided, and dangerous”.
All well and good for the President to recognize domestic political imperatives, but for many diplomats, the issue at hand was too important and the United Nations General Assembly was the wrong venue and they were the wrong audience for a campaign speech. And so while the Israelis cheered, Arabs were left distraught and/or disgusted. Said one Arab leader, summing up the Arab mood, “we had a U.S. President our people hated, now we have one they can't trust.”
With the U.S. having lost its ability to lead and the Palestinian petition still to be considered, diplomats began scrambling to find a way forward. What followed was as pathetic as it was ironic. At stake was an effort to help the U.S. avoid vetoing the Palestinian submission—since it was feared that a veto would provoke an angry anti-American response in the Arab World. And so we were left with the Europeans appealing to the Palestinians to delay a vote in order to save the U.S. from a veto, so that the U.S. could save face and save Israel from a Palestinian state! Once again, the weakest party was being asked to take the hardest step to save the strongest party from doing what was right—with the result being that Israel emerged isolated, to be sure, but protected and emboldened.
A sad and disquieting end to a most difficult week.