Abbas and Netanyahu left the UN with no hopes of peace anytime soon
Many question the purpose of the annual pilgrimage to the UN General Assembly every autumn, as leaders descend on the landmark building on Manhattan’s 1st Ave. to deliver a 15-minute speech which, contrary to the organization’s charter, hardly leads to any improvement in the state of international affairs or the human condition.
One of the issues that has occupied much of the UN’s attention over the past 75 years has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the organization has had very little success in terms of resolving it.
For the better part of the past two decades, it has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who speaks on Israel’s behalf and President Mahmoud Abbas who represents the Palestinians, two leaders who are long past the zenith of their power and competence.
This year, as in many previous years, Netanyahu’s speech was characterized by an arrogance sprinkled with considerable delusional elements, while Abbas came across in his address as desperate and powerless. Each blamed the other for the current impasse between them, with no self-reflection on their own considerable contributions to this sorry state of affairs; although it might be naive to expect either leader to have honed this important human skill.
What is staggering on such occasions is that the speakers, and not only Abbas and Netanyahu, act as if the world is completely oblivious to what is happening in their own political backyard. In the case of these two, they preside, loosely speaking, over societies that are enduring a deep sociopolitical crisis which, to a large extent, derives not only from the long history of the conflict between their peoples but also from their own failed leadership over many years.
And there is another element that characterizes both of these leaders: They are in denial about the indisputable fact that they are in the twilight of their political careers and have little credibility or legitimacy, among their own people or abroad. Furthermore, they completely fail to recognize that they are a major cause of the problems faced by their respective nations and so can hardly be part of the solution.
Between the two of them, it was rather obvious that it is the Israeli leader who most cherishes this occasion on the world stage, even if he spoke to a nearly empty chamber. Meanwhile his Palestinian counterpart stood before the world’s leaders with little faith that deliverance from his people’s predicament of living under occupation, siege and exile would come from this forum.
It is no secret that when it comes to sympathy and empathy, the Palestinians are receiving a great deal from large sections of the global community, but it is doing hardly anything to change the situation.
Despite a plea by Abbas to the UN membership to follow the organization’s own resolutions — there are many hundreds of them, and international law is utterly logical — he knows that given the current international conditions, the vast majority of UN members who would like to see an end to the Israeli occupation, and with it the daily violations of basic human rights of millions of Palestinians, fall into one of two groups. Either they believe it is no longer possible to bring about a two-state solution, do not think it is worth investing in and are playing a waiting game for radical changes, in both Israel and Palestine, in terms of leadership and approach to resolving their conflict before they are prepared to actively return to this toxic environment; or they have simply become apathetic and desensitized to the Palestinians’ predicament at a time when there are other, more pressing international issues to attend to.
Netanyahu’s attempt to act as statesman before the UN General Assembly was less than convincing.
There is hardly disagreement about the ills of the occupation and the fact that consecutive Israeli administrations have done their utmost to destroy the prospect of a two-state solution by entrenching the occupation though the illegal building and expansion of settlements, packing them with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, and establishing an apartheid regime in the West Bank.
However, people also know that Abbas has already exceeded by 16 years the term in office he was elected for, and hardly enjoys legitimacy even among his own people. It could be argued that his greatest contribution to the Palestinian cause would have been to announce to the General Assembly that not only was he now resigning, but in the process would be dismantling the Palestinian Authority and handing back responsibility for the security and welfare of the Palestinian people to the international community and the occupying force.
While for Abbas, relations with Israel are naturally the be-all and end-all, Netanyahu has always had the luxury, at least in his own mind, of marginalizing and being dismissive of the issue. Instead, he loves to play-act a charade of being the visionary world leader, discussing a range of issues, from global security to artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, his credibility dwindles as he faces protests wherever he goes and leads a government that is abhorred internationally.
In one passage of his speech, he revealed what he is scheming at when it comes to the Palestinians. His path to settling the conflict with them is to first normalize relations with the rest of the Arab world and as a result, according to him, the Palestinians will “finally embrace a path of genuine peace.”
In Netanyahu’s mind, this scenario will allow Israel to dictate the conditions of any future peace agreement, which will fall considerably short of creating a fully-fledged independent Palestinian state with a contiguous territory. At best it will be a state the survival of which depends on the mercy and good will of Israel.
While Washington and Riyadh remain cautious about the possibility of normalized relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Netanyahu is overplaying this card as if it were a done deal.
In his precarious political situation in Israel — where protests against the government have been taking place continuously for 38 weeks now, and his far-right partners in the coalition government are not smart enough to understand the strategic value of normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia for the long-term security and well-being of the Jewish state, or too zealous to accept any concessions to the Palestinians to achieve this goal — Netanyahu’s attempt to act as statesman before the UN General Assembly was less than convincing.
As the speeches by Abbas and Netanyahu only underlined, this is an asymmetric conflict and that is a major factor that is preventing a fair and just resolution, as one side holds most, if not all, of the cards. It is therefore for the international community to correct this imbalance.
Until the world’s leaders are ready to do so, by embarking on a concerted effort to bring the sides together to negotiate peace in earnest, which after all is why the UN was established in the first place, the prospects for a peaceful resolution will remain as remote as ever.
- 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. X: @YMekelberg