x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Israel, America and Iran are united by a missed opportunity

Speeches at the United Nations reveal that Iran, the US, and Israel are each, in their own ways, out of touch with the world's aspirations - and on the wrong side of history.

Despite the uncertain trajectory of some Arab countries, the still-nascent Arab Spring continues to change the region. Even just months later, it's sometimes astonishing to recall how much. This was a revolution of the people, where ordinary Arabs managed to do what was almost unthinkable and end the rule of dictators.

The region has been changed in an historic sense, in a way that will take years to understand and accommodate.

And yet not everyone gets it. Listening to three speeches from the United Nations last week - from the leaders of America, Iran and Israel - was like hearing the voices of the past. These were speeches that could as easily have been given five or 10 years ago. With the Palestinian bid for statehood before the UN, these leaders could have broken with expectations and grasped a singular opportunity. But for them, the Arab Spring may as well have not happened.

Start with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To listen to the speech of Iran's president before the world body was to understand how little has changed in his mind, despite the upheavals around him.

Iran's Green movement continues, but the leaders in Tehran say nothing, understand nothing of what has happened on their own street. With seismic changes gripping the region, with the leadership of Iran's ally Syria tottering, with the Palestinian cause - to which Mr Ahmadinejad has paid repeated lip-service - at an historic juncture, Iran's leader took to the stage to denounce the "mysterious" September 11 attacks and to rail against the "slave masters and colonial powers" of the West.

These are the arguments and the animosities of yesterday.

The same from Benjamin Netanyahu. More than any leader at the UN, Israel's prime minister had a chance to break with the past, to be a leader in the mould of Yitzhak Rabin, and turn towards a just peace. He failed.

Instead, the international community was treated to an old speech from Mr Netanyahu, questioning the world body, condemning it while pleading for its help, railing at the Iranian government, and offering tired justifications for the siege of Gaza.

Like Mr Ahmadinejad, Mr Netanyahu has little sense of what is happening on the street. Israelis have proven over the past few months that they recognise the opportunity of the Arab Spring, taking to the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities with slogans such as "Tahrir is here!"

These young people understand the lessons of the Arab Spring and share a desire to be part of the modern Middle East. But Mr Netanyahu sees none of this. Presented with an opportunity to lead the best elements of Israel, to be on the right side of history, he retreated.

But the most disappointing speech of all came from a man who has built a formidable reputation for choosing the right words.

To listen to Barack Obama's speech was to be shocked at the cravenness of politics, made worse when the US president invoked the spirit of internationalist American politicians such as Franklin Roosevelt.

Indeed, the speech itself was oddly disjointed. The first part, during which Mr Obama spoke loftily of international peace and individual dignity, seemed to be hitting the right notes for the occasion: "A lasting peace - for nations and for individuals - depends on a sense of justice and opportunity, of dignity and freedom."

And then, the twist. Having spent most of the speech praising Arabs for standing up for freedom and their rights, he declined to support the Palestinians in their quest for the same. Instead, he placed America with the occupying power Israel, standing with the oppressor against the oppressed.

Expected, perhaps, but it is hard to overstate what a shocking policy this is, what an absolute abnegation of those American ideals espoused by Roosevelt.

What makes it more astonishing is how clearly on the wrong side of history Mr Obama has placed America. This was a moment for America to speak the right words about the scar of occupation. And he failed.

Indeed, the tortured negotiations over Palestinian statehood over the last few weeks have exposed the rottenness of America's policy when it comes to Palestine. The nasty bullying, the agonised linguistic wriggling to try to explain away how America came to shout "No" to an occupied people. How did it come to this?

Mr Obama looked nothing like the radical leader he has painted himself to be. He looked like a moribund politician, clinging to outdated ideas, trying to control a dead end peace process. "Leading from behind" was the phrase for US policy on Libya. On Palestine, America was leading backwards.

The bid for statehood was an opportunity for statesmanship, a chance for world leaders to stand with the dispossessed Palestinians - to stand on the right side of history. And yet, Mr Obama placed his country with Israel and Iran, caught in the past, instead of saying that simple three-letter word he should be familiar with: "Yes". That he could not bring himself to do so, even as the majority of the world did, was an historic failure at an historic moment.