The hall is usually full of delegates from around the world, yearning to hear something new, something different, that might give them some sense of optimism. Most of these occasions leave little or no room for hope of any imminent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; on the contrary, they tend to leave the audience deeply worried that a new round of hostilities may be just around the corner. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas may live a short distance from one another, but their views on the current situation are light years apart.
There is a striking difference between the way Netanyahu and Abbas approach this world gathering. Netanyahu is increasingly complacent, some might say arrogant. The recurrent theme is that under his leadership his country has become a beacon of success in the world; the UN and its members are unfair in their criticism of Israel and utterly hypocritical in their attitude toward his country; and Iran poses the greatest danger to Israel and world peace. And this year all is topped with a less than convincing fawning to US president Donald Trump.
However, the most interesting topic is the one that he intentionally, insolently and insultingly ignores — relations with the Palestinians. Only once, in a rather lengthy speech, did Netanyahu refer to the Palestinians. In his “generosity” he expressed Israel’s commitment to peace with all Israel’s Arab neighbors, “including the Palestinians.” Really, Mr. Netanyahu, “including the Palestinians”? A passing remark, as if he were talking about some distant place with no impact on the country of which he is prime minister. As if the policies of his government had not been instrumental in bringing a total impasse to efforts to create a just and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu certainly appears to be an impressive orator, especially to those who are not that familiar with the subject of his speech. Peace, including full diplomatic relations with the rest of the Arab world, can materialize only on the condition that a just peace is reached with the Palestinians. Not before, and not instead of. He chose to ignore his next-door neighbors when he was on the podium of the General Assembly in New York, but now that he is back in his official residence in Jerusalem, all he needs to do is open his window, and unless the seperation wall and Jewish settlements block his view he can see millions of Palestinians, living under harsh Israeli occupation, who long to exercise their right to self-determination.
It is hard to argue against Netanyahu’s assertion that most of the international community is hypocritical in, on the one hand, condemning Israel for the occupation, while on the other hand happily having close trade relations with it, including selling and buying weapons.
Still, what was he suggesting — that they should abandon the Palestinian cause all together? Or alternatively should the world take the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement route in dealing with Israel? He also has a point about the danger stemming from Iran, but his Iron-Curtain, Churchillian-style references to this threat are a mere combination of ignorance and demagoguery. No cringe-inducing jokes about penguins or the rating of the Bible on Amazon could hide his avoidance technique on the most important single issue that will determine whether Israel remains Jewish and democratic.
Abbas is less colorful in his speeches than Netanyahu, but his low-key approach is more aligned with reality than that of his Israeli counterpart. He leaves his audience in no doubt about the dire conditions the Palestinians are experiencing and the bleak horizon in front of them. His doomsday weapon against Israel is to abandon the two-state solution in favor of the one-state solution. Abbas knows he should deploy this threat wisely, especially considering that it is not his preferred solution. Three decades ago he was one of the main driving forces in the Palestinian Liberation Organization to adopt the two-state solution as a strategic objective; now, as his leadership draws toward its inevitable close, he is reluctantly using the one-state solution as a whip to encourage Israel to restart negotiations on the two-state solution.
The Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister both know what the problem is, but the chasm between their views on how to solve it is too wide for them to bridge alone.
Deep down he knows that he has no partner in these negotiations on the Israeli side. Moreover he witnesses the daily expansion of Jewish settlements, the entrenched occupation and the divisions among his own people that make the dream of two independent Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side a fast disappearing one. As a veteran of peace negotiations, despite his own unconvincing attempt to flatter President Donald Trump, he knows that the current American administration is the most unlikely savior of peace.
He most probably agrees with Netanyahu that there is a huge discrepancy between the verbal support that the Palestinian cause receives from members of the UN and their reluctance to match words with deeds. Hence, what is left for him is to warn Israel and the world that both are heading to either another prolonged violent conflict, or a bi-national state.
The chasm between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ perceptions of the current state of the conflict is extremely wide. Both stand on the edge of it with no sign of any assertive international guide to help them bridge it. Yet if this chasm cannot be bridged, both peoples may find themselves at the bottom of the abyss.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg