Speeches by Abbas and Netanyahu at the UN: Worlds apart

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

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Television is not my favorite pastime, one-day last week, an exception was made for the two speeches given by the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, at this year’s gathering of world leaders. The United Nations General Assembly listened to two decidedly contrasting narratives of the same conflict; the Israel Palestine conflict.Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority spoke for about seventeen minutes in Arabic, one of the few languages recognized by the United Nations. His passionate speech was interrupted several times by rousing ovations. The English translation, while very accurate, failed to deliver the same passion of the Arabic version. Shockingly, MSNBC TV, promptly cuts away the speech when he began discussing “another Nakba,” to a segment on the need to attack Iran.

Mahmoud Abbas’ words on the Palestinian question were derived from the desperation of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the urgency for international solidarity. Abbas warned that Palestinians should not be expected to return to a peace process that has continuously failed them. He directly pointed the finger at Israel for the failure, arguing that the two-state solution must be saved, but there is little urgency displayed on the part of Israel or the U.S. to save it. Many believe this option may well be past the point of salvation.

Abbas’ speech signaled his de facto capitulation to a set of donor dependency relations especially with the U.S. and Israel, and the failure to link Palestinian struggle for freedom and rights with the democratic momentum of the Arab Spring. Despite singling out Israelis for undermining peace prospects, nowhere will it be read that Abbas was ready to be more assertive and independent of the U.S. or more challenging to Israel. Excluding American one-sidedness from the speech, Abbas instead said the Palestinians are not desirous of upsetting relations with the U.S. or the upcoming elections. The “intensive consultations” he spoke of regarding Palestinian membership in additional UN bodies are just that- talks, which are as productive twenty years of negotiations with Israel. A source shows the US has asked the Palestinians to delay the bid until after the US presidential elections.

I credit Abbas for using a language that was directed with the aim of winning support from many Palestinians who remain dissatisfied with the current Palestinian leadership. Abbas spoke of the Israeli “apartheid” and asserted the need to continue “peaceful popular resistance” against the occupation. In a clear effort to win support from Palestinian civil society, whose call for a global campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions has fundamentally challenged the longstanding PLO/PA strategy. He spoke in a language of rights, and identified Israel’s “settler colonialism” as something that must be “condemned, punished and boycotted.” Abbas described Israel’s “illegal” policies in language taken directly from the texts and discourse of international law. The “occupying power” — a legal term repeated multiple times in the speech — has employed severe “illegal measures” against the Palestinian population, including hindering economic development and pursuing a policy of “racist settlement.” The speech was intended, “to laying out the Palestinian case against Israel – a case they will press in international criminal forums if admitted to the U.N. General Assembly.”

Abbas’ call for the Security Council to set the terms of reference for any renewed diplomatic process seemed to contradict his longstanding willingness to allow U.S. control of the negotiation process. Ultimately, if the UN grants the non-member status for Palestine, it will remain a symbolic victory with little impact on the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. This prospective vote will soon become a pyrrhic victory, fostering greater U.S. reluctance to engage the Palestinians as a partner in a revitalized peace process, regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election.

Uninterrupted and in fluent American English, Netanyahu followed Abbas by only a few minutes, giving a speech that lasted twice as long. More than his words, the speech will always be remembered by the cartoon-like drawing of a bomb to explain the urgency to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Susan Rice, the American envoy to the UN stayed to hear Abbas’ speech but promptly left before Netanyahu began. Her exit was justified by her office claiming “she had more important things to attend to” while Obama critics construed the exit as a sign of unease between Netanyahu and the Administration.

Netanyahu’s speech had one aim: to urge the world to wage war on Iran. The Palestinian conflict was only marginally stressed. Netanyahu spoke about Palestine and “libelous” statements made by Abbas about Israel. Unlike his speech given at the same world body in 2011, he makes no mention of a future Palestinian state, the agreed upon the cornerstone of the US-sponsored peace process.

Netanyahu focuses on Iran to distract from the attention of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. He put forward, as usual, a Manichean worldview that is not conducive to solving problems. Further, and perhaps most perplexingly, he urged “red lines” to be drawn to alter Iran’s decision-making calculations while simultaneously arguing that an irrational Iran cannot be contained by peaceful means.

Talk of “red lines” has been a source of disagreement between Israel and the United States, which refused Netanyahu’s request to use the same threatening language against Iran. Netanyahu sought to draw an ultimatum of imminent military action before Iran reaches the second stage of uranium enrichment. To illustrate, Netanyahu showed a primitive cartoon of a bomb, depicting Iran’s progress toward building a nuclear weapon, on which he drew a thick red line just under the point of detonation. The bomb cartoon, interestingly, became the subject of ridicule and even some approbation at the expense of serious talks about the substance of his speech.

A closer look at the speech revealed that Netanyahu appeared to go head to head with President Obama on not one, but two issues. First, the narrative in his opposition to Obama’s search for shared values and tolerance, Netanyahu names himself a champion of a “clash of civilizations.” The second issue, of course, is Iran, and his insistence on a different red line than the President. Netanyahu attempts to situate himself in the driver’s seat of how the international community navigates the Iran nuclear issue.

The situation is brimming with indicators that one of Netanyahu’s private goals is to shape the US presidential election. For one, he has a very uneasy with Obama and a longstanding friendship with Romney. Netanyahu’s recent demands on Iran have already found their way into a million-dollar ad by attacking Obama in Florida. The group distributing this ad, Secure America Now, is led by a Republican strategist notorious for having a direct line to Netanyahu.

The Annual General Assembly gathering of world leaders is designed to allow the opportunity to advance world peace. Abbas threatened to stop negotiating with the archenemy of his people. Opposite him, Netanyahu wants to start the next world war and brought the bomb to boot.

Dr. Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.

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