x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Petty politics trump a historic moment for Palestinians

Once again, the weakest party was asked to take the hardest step to save the strongest party from doing what was right.

This was a disturbing week at the United Nations. After all of the drama leading up to this session of the General Assembly, we come away with three troubling facts: the Palestinians, despite a valiant effort, are no closer to a state; the Israelis are more isolated, yet more emboldened; and the United States emerges weaker and less trusted as a world leader.

It was a week of speeches and exhausting meetings over the Palestinian bid for statehood. In a way, it was the speeches that told the story. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivered what must have been the speech of his life. It was a powerful and passionate retelling of the Palestinian narrative: from dispossession, dispersal and occupation to standing on the threshold of statehood. Broadcast live on a split screen, viewers saw the UN chamber on one side and the crowd in Ramallah's Arafat Square on the other.

It was a speech worthy of the moment, and when he held up the copy of his letter to the Secretary General petitioning Palestinian statehood, both audiences erupted in cheers.

Mr Abbas was followed by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used his remarks to claim Jewish rights to all of Judea and Samaria, while still insisting on his interest in a negotiated peace. Mr Netanyahu's duplicity was on display with these self-contradicting remarks. To make his case that peace was not possible with the Palestinians, he relied on the well-worn canard that two previous Israeli prime ministers had offered generous peace deals that were rejected by Palestinians. In fact, negotiations in 2001 with Ehud Barak were terminated by Israel because of upcoming elections, which Mr Barak lost; and the "offer" made by Ehud Olmert in 2008 was never seen as serious, since he was under indictment, had only a few weeks left in office, had a 6 per cent approval rating and could not have closed a deal in any case.

Mr Netanyahu also repeated the fiction that Israel "handed the keys to Mahmoud Abbas" when it left Gaza, when it did no such thing. Israel left Gaza unilaterally and refused to coordinate its departure with the Palestinian Authority, paving the way for chaos and a Hamas takeover.

Then there was the inflammatory incitement, as in this diatribe against "critics": "They praise those who unwittingly feed the insatiable crocodile of militant Islam as bold statesmen. They cast as enemies of peace those of us who insist that we must first erect a sturdy barrier to keep the crocodile out, or at the very least jam an iron bar between its gaping jaws."

What was striking was the stone dead silence that greeted Mr Netanyahu's remarks (this was not, after all, the US Congress), until the Israeli delegation came to life and played the dutiful cheerleaders to their team captain.

But the most disturbing performance of the week, however, belonged to US President Barack Obama. His speech began with a marvellous recap of the raison d'être and history of the United Nations, unintentionally reminding us that the UN is in fact the proper venue for resolving Palestinian statehood. But having laid out the case for the UN, the president made a sharp pivot to argue why Palestine was the exception.

When Mr Obama described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this speech, one could not help but note how different it was from his two earlier addresses before the General Assembly (not to mention his stirring 2009 Cairo University address). The sufferings of Jews and insecurity of Israel were laid out in detail, without any mention of the tribulations of the Palestinians. His single-minded embrace of the Israeli narrative was so convincing that Mr Netanyahu awarded him "a badge of honour".

US commentary understood what had taken place. The political newsletter The Hotline reported the president's remarks under a heading referring to the 2012 presidential campaign. Under attack by his Republican opponents, Mr Obama used this speech to buttress support among American Jewish voters. GOP opponents preceded the speech with criticism, with Mitt Romney reiterating that "Obama had thrown Israel under the bus", while Rick Perry accused the president of pursuing "naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous" Middle East policy.

All well and good for the president to recognise domestic political imperatives, but the issue at hand was too important, and the UN General Assembly the wrong venue, for a campaign speech. And so while the Israelis cheered, Arabs were left distraught or disgusted. Arab leaders summed up the sentiment by saying that their people could no longer trust Mr Obama.

With the US having lost its ability to lead and the Palestinian petition still to be considered, diplomats began scrambling. What followed was pathetic. At stake was an effort to help the US to avoid vetoing the Palestinian submission - since it was feared that would provoke angry anti-American response. And so we were left with Europeans appealing to Palestinians to delay a vote, so the US could save face. Once again, the weakest party was asked to take the hardest step to save the strongest party from doing what was right. The result was that Israel emerged isolated, to be sure, but protected.

A sad end to a most difficult week.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute