On the same global stage, two leaders a world apart
There could not have been two more strikingly different speeches than those delivered to the UN General Assembly in New York by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The two men’s official residences are less than an hour’s travel from each other (not including hours of delay at an Israeli checkpoint if you are a Palestinian), but in terms of their political outlook and priorities for relations between their peoples, they are light years apart.
Abbas belongs to an older generation, one that made the transition from armed struggle against Israel to becoming a peace partner, but in the twilight of his career he gives the impression of someone in utter despair. Deep down he knows that his chances of ever leading his people to self-determination, with Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestine, are somewhere between slim and nil. His people are divided, and on the international agenda the Palestinian question is on a downward spiral. An Israeli government led by a man who has built his career on promoting the construction and expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is unlikely to give Abbas, or anyone else, any hope of breaking the impasse.
Both speeches were also a demonstration of the diametrically opposite international status of Israel and Palestine. Israel has been a full member of the UN since 1949, while the Palestinian Authority gained its “non-member observer state” status only in 2012. This may look like an “upgrade,” but above all highlights the fact that nearly three-quarters of a century after the UN voted in favour of the Partition Plan, only one side gained self-determination and enjoys the freedoms that come with it.
Abbas’s speech was a mixture of lament and threat. His lament concentrated on the injustices done to the Palestinians, who are ready to make an historic compromise and accept that a future Palestinian state would be limited territorially to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip —less than half the land allocated to it by the UN in 1947. Yet the occupation is as entrenched as ever and Palestinians are enduring a punishing Israeli military presence and constant physical and verbal abuse from settlers, with the backing of that military. Abbas and the Palestinian political system are not entirely blameless in this sorry state of affairs, but his description of the hopelessness created by successive Israeli governments and settlers who continue to treat Palestinians with callous and arbitrary abandon, while violating their basic political and human rights with impunity, is fair and accurate. However, Abbas knows that in the current international zeitgeist he enjoys much sympathy but little tangible support. At this stage of his life he is a leader with dwindling support at home, presiding over a divided nation, who has little to gain by resuming the armed struggle, while a diplomatic initiative is not in the offing.
Both speeches were also a demonstration of the diametrically opposite international status of Israel and Palestine.
However, although his critique of the international community’s inaction in the face of the injustices done to his people is not off the mark, does Abbas really believe anyone will take the initiative to change this? Probably not, hence his resort to his two remaining weapons against Israel. The first was a warning to Israelis that their policies are leading to a one-state solution, and consequently to the end of the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state and with it a trajectory to a fully fledged apartheid regime. The second was a one-year ultimatum to Israel, calling for its withdrawal “from the Palestinian territory it occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem,” otherwise the Palestinian Authority will refer the case of the legality of the occupation to the International Court of Justice, and the PLO will withdraw its recognition of Israel. It would be naïve to believe that without the proactive involvement of the international community, and especially Washington, such a solution could be achieved within a year. But the threat is that unless there is a dramatic turn of events, the Palestinian Authority will disengage from all cooperation with Israel, including security, and will concentrate on further discrediting Israel’s behavior within the framework of international law.
Bennett, in his first appearance at the UN General Assembly as prime minister, replied to Abbas’s speech — by ignoring the Palestinian issue altogether! For him the Palestinian people as a nation do not exist, and their plight doesn’t deserve even a brief mention. Instead, it was as if he were competing with his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu in his aggrandisement of the Jewish state as a “beacon of democracy” and a hub of innovation, despite being in the “toughest neighborhood on earth.” Instead, in a very Netanyahu-like style, Bennett preferred to concentrate on Iran, although the more he spoke about it, the less convincing he was that Israel has any strategy beyond demanding that the international community have one. Without underestimating for even a moment the severe challenges originating from Iran’s policies, especially as it is fast approaching the nuclear weapon threshold, the fact remains that, more than any other issue it faces, relations with the Palestinians are going to afect the character of Israel, its security, wellbeing and relations with the world.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is an asymmetric one, and this was reflected in both leaders’ speeches. While the weaker side pleaded for a return to the negotiation table and for support from the international community, the stronger side in its audacity would not even acknowledge that there is an issue to address for the occupying and blockading force regarding how it is going to improve the lives of Palestinians, even if currently there is no horizon for peace. For sure, Abbas’s threats to withdraw recognition and take Israel to the Hague might not materialise; however, Bennett’s utter arrogance in refusing to acknowledge that there is even an issue to answer should encounter an adequate response from the world’s biggest diplomatic gathering, and put him in his place.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg