After a full year of diplomatic activity crammed into one exhausting week at the United Nations, the critical question is, now what?
President Obama gave a remarkable speech which was largely ignored by most of the world and even American Jews. In the breach of the current situation, he could not have delivered a more ringing endorsement of Israel and Israel’s negotiating position, while also pushing for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to move rapidly to negotiating mode. Unfortunately for the president, he is playing political catch-up with some segments of the Jewish community.
The only presentation which might have received less attention from UN attendees — as opposed to American Jews — was that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking as much for domestic consumption as for the world community and American Jews, Netanyahu spoke at length about Jewish history and his desire to move ahead with a willing partner in creating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The reception for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was nothing short of heroic as he announced to the international community that — as expected — he was presenting his application for international recognition of Palestine as a full member of the UN. Even in his triumphant appearance in 1974, Yasser Arafat did not receive more of a welcome than did Abbas. As Fox News reported, Abbas at the UN now rose out of Arafat’s shadow; but the question remained, to what end?
In viewing these speeches and the additional Israel bashing from Iran and Turkey, among others, one is struck by the absurdity and sadness of the charade. The American president is afraid to assert leadership for fear that his Jewish polling numbers will plummet, making him even more vulnerable in key states like Florida and Pennsylvania next November. The Israeli prime minister knows he has the Obama administration on the rocks, sees the Quartet as having lost any influence, sees Europe consumed by the debt crisis, and his domestic political partners applauding his defiance. Netanyahu feels no political necessity to move ahead with negotiations as there are no forces around capable of pressuring him to do so. Soon enough there will be another hiatus in Israel as it also will have the run-up to new elections.
Abbas keeps winning international support by doing nothing, so why should he actually engage the Israelis? On the West Bank, he remains formidable as long as Prime Minister Salam Fayad continues to be healthy enough to manage affairs for his administration. (Curiously, Fayad had opposed Abbas’ strategy to obtain a symbolic victory at the UN). Abbas still has not begun to deal with his own Hamas opposition forces arrayed in Gaza, who are itching to challenge Abbas in elections, which have been postponed now for over two years.
The sad part is that some moves might have been arranged to avoid the scene at the UN. Both Israel and the Palestinians might have been pushed into serious conversation. Both sides could have agreed to staged steps to resume talks involving many of the public issues. Both Netanyahu and Abbas would have needed to be willing to take political risks, but the international benefits might have been dramatic — for both sides — with truly little cost.
So Obama returned to Washington asking himself how, with so many critical global economic, security, and humanitarian issues looming, the United Nations could become totally obsessed with a problem that — as much as he would like to solve it — is hardly the number one crisis facing the international community.
Abbas goes back to the region as the hero who kept his word to his people. He is greeted as a lion tamer for having reduced the United States and the West to a group of bystanders, regardless of how long the UN will take to respond to his request for admission. He knows that the United States will veto the motion should it fail to be stopped by a majority of the total Security Council membership.
Finally, Netanyahu returns home to celebrate Rosh Hashana and see what the New Year will bring for him, Israel, and the Jewish people. Practically speaking, nothing this year has moved the region toward peace, quite the contrary. Perhaps 5772 will be a year that may move Israel and her neighbors closer.