The two U.N. speeches that hinted at Israeli-Palestinian escalation

Yossi Mekelberg

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One of the most futile exercises that any commentator on Israeli-Palestinian affairs can undertake at the moment is to consider whether we are witnessing the beginning of a third uprising. The resurgence of violence is a sad inevitability when there is no political horizon for a peaceful end to the conflict, nor even hope for a genuine prospect for peace negotiations.

Whether there is already a third Palestinian uprising on its way depends on if we measure it by the intensity of violence or the level of motivation and resentment, especially among young Palestinians.

Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s addresses to the U.N. General Assembly provided a sense that neither leader possesses the necessary common ground or ability to avert a new uprising.

They almost brace themselves for the fact that the near future harbors more bloodshed than any prospect for peace. What they mainly share at the moment, and was clearly reflected in their speeches, is a sense of despair.

Unfortunately, their speeches were more of an effort to galvanize their own constituencies at home and abroad, rather reaching out to one another. For those on both sides who resort to violence anyway, these speeches were neither here nor there. They have already made up their minds that the diplomatic route had its day long ago.

Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s addresses to the U.N. General Assembly provided a sense that neither leader possesses the necessary common ground or ability to avert a new uprising

Yossi Mekelberg

Despair and mutual finger-pointing are where the parallels between Netanyahu’s and Abbas’s U.N. appearances cease. Abbas knows he is rapidly losing whatever is left of Palestinian popular support for his leadership and his policies. Despite lapses in his historical account, he came across as the more genuine of the two.

In the twilight of his leadership, not only is the two-state solution that he advocates quickly disappearing, but also his longstanding advocacy of non-violence is left with ever-dwindling support among many Palestinians. The veteran peace negotiator seems to be resigned to the fact that the next phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be confrontation on the streets, instead of sitting around the negotiating table.

As for his scathing, and for the most part accurate, criticism of current Israeli government policies, particularly on the issues of settlements and Jerusalem, he sees no salvation but proactive involvement by the international community. However, with his experience he knows that unwillingness, incompetence, and a change of priorities in the region at the moment makes this option remote.


Not surprisingly, Netanyahu devoted most of his speech to attacking the nuclear deal with Iran. It was an apocalyptic and overly theatrical speech that underlined, almost embraced, Israel as a country with very few friends around the world. He knows well that his diplomatic and military options are very limited.

Once again, his legitimate concerns over Iran vis-à-vis long-term verification, support of militancy and the unacceptable threatening language against Israel is falling victim to his own uncompromising approach and hollow rhetoric. His 45-second silent staring at the General Assembly could only be described as awkward and counterproductive.

His concentration on Iran instead of the more urgent issue of relations with the Palestinians exposed, when he eventually referred to it, that Iran is also a convenient diversion from events much closer to home. Even then, he offered only old slogans with little substance.

His call for an immediate resumption of negotiations with no preconditions, immediately followed by two preconditions - a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state - deserved the skepticism it was met with in many international quarters.

Flawed leadership

Netanyahu prefers to deliver his big vision on Iran and what he sees as the danger to the world from militant Islam, rather than deal with advancing a peaceful solution with the Palestinians. He shows a complete lack of leadership and direction even in managing the conflict.

It took him many months to prohibit members of his own government and the Israeli parliament from entering the Temple Mount, knowing all along that this violation of the status quo on Muslim holy sites provokes tension not only with the Palestinians, but potentially with the entire Muslim world.

He was only prompted to act when violent clashes spread from East Jerusalem to the usually tranquil streets of Jaffa and Nazareth within Israel, and when a confrontation with thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, marching toward the fence separating them from Israel, ended with six Palestinians dead - yet another example epitomizing his reactive and strategically flawed premiership.

The most immediate concern for Israel, and to a large extent for the Palestinians, is if the Palestinian Authority (PA) implements Abbas’s threat at the General Assembly to free itself from the Oslo Accords. It might compromise the security coordination between the two, and place the onus on Israel to run the daily affairs of Palestinians in the West Bank, which as the occupying force it is required to do by international law.

This is not an attractive prospect for either side. Yet the spate of indiscriminate violence on both sides requires more than anything else an attentive political response from all involved, and even more from the international community. Rousing speeches at the United Nations might make those who deliver them feel exonerated, but they do not change the unfortunate facts on the ground.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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