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Netanyahu and Abbas: What’s in a speech!

Netanyahu and Abbas only agreed on one thing in their speeches, and this was ironically that the UN is irrelevant

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

One can only wonder what Shimon Peres, who passed away last week, would have thought had he known his funeral would present Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas with the opportunity to shake hands. The handshake did after all take place only a week after both exchanged verbal punches from the United Nations General Assembly’s podium.

Within the space of few hours both the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “reassured” the UN that peace between the two nations is as remote as ever, if not impossible. At the end of the day it was another public relations exercise by both leaders on the foremost leading diplomatic stage to slag each other off. Strangely enough, Netanyahu and Abbas only agreed on one thing in their speeches, and this was ironically that the UN is irrelevant in resolving the conflict between the two sides.

For the out-of-sorts Abbas, the inability to overcome the veto power of the United States in the Security Council, or their inability to at least condemn the expansion of the Israeli settlements, if not to recognize Palestine as a state, renders this international body toothless.

As for Netanyahu, in one of his most arrogant and provocative speeches, even by his own standards, he did not spare the feelings of the diplomats sitting in attendance and bluntly told them that their own governments disregard the institution in which they are serving their countries. Both views, as expressed in the UN, reveal more than ever two leaders who have overstayed their welcome in power.

It is hard to fault Netanyahu for mocking the world in which, despite disapproval and condemnation of the entrenchment of occupation and the siege of Gaza, almost every country is happy to do business with Israel

Yossi Mekelberg

Platform for sarcasm

Netanyahu, in a show of sheer hubris, apparently used the General Assembly as a platform for sarcasm instead of a place for constructive engagement in advancing peace with the Palestinians. It is a reflection of the current Israeli government, which believes that it is currently militarily, diplomatically and economically untouchable. The collapse of the Middle East old order, the closer than ever cooperation with Egypt, and an Iran that has little interest in directly challenging Israel, leaves an existential military threat to Israel a very low probability.

Diplomatically, Netanyahu and his government’s policies have endured much disparagement, but without any tangible consequences. It is hard to fault him for mocking the world in which, despite wide disapproval and condemnation of the Israeli entrenchment of the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, almost every country is happy to do business with Israel.

Moreover, even Obama, who has not concealed his antipathy for Netanyahu, was ready in the closing days of his administration to meet with him and even more significantly pledged a $38 billion worth in long term military aid to Israel. When the Israeli prime minister thanked the United States for this, it appeared to be a tongue-in-cheek from someone that rode his luck in prodding the most powerful country in the world and came out on top.

There appeared to be almost a childlike determination in Netanyahu’s speech to boast that his country’s technological sophistication and the unwavering support of the United States make his country beyond reproach. He practically mocked the delegations at the UN General Assembly for being sent to pay no more than lip service to the Palestinian cause, but behind their backs these very same governments were happy to do business with Israel.

There is no escape from admitting that he is not that far from being correct in his observations. It still leaves open the question of how smart it was of him to provoke the world in this manner, not to mention the lack of sensitivity to the moral implications of it, or how the international community is going to react to these remarks.

Abbas’ plea

If Netanyahu left the impression of a man convinced that time and history were on his side, President Abbas seemed to project the opposite, pleading with the world to act swiftly before it is too late for Palestinian self-determination. Leading a nation which has all the hallmarks of a state, but is not, turns his annual trips to New York into a mixture of highlighting the ills of Israeli occupation and constant warnings of the explosiveness of the situation. There is not much wrong with his description of the situation, however, he does not seem capable at this stage of suggesting any innovative ideas to break the stalemate.

The result is adhering to what is his justifiable anger with the current situation, combined with repeating solutions that have been tried before and failed. Admittedly, for Abbas this big occasion is always tricky as he tries to reconcile the irreconcilable. He needs to satisfy his constituency back at home, which is at a boiling point and demands a robust approach. For instance, his courageous decision to attend Peres’ funeral was criticized by many Palestinians and others in the region.

Concurrently, he has to project a moderate and conciliatory approach for the benefit of the international community, avoiding giving Israel a reason to marginalize him and apply even harsher measures with his people. Not an enviable position. However, his speech consisted also of a rather unhelpful and bizarre twist, attacking the century old Balfour Declaration.

In the past he threatened to sue the United Kingdom for giving birth to it. No one should expect any Palestinian to embrace the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jewish people a national home in Palestine.

Nonetheless, to sue a country for it nearly a century later surely cannot be the best Abbas can do for his people. What does he expect to gain should he win this lawsuit? Worse, it provides those within Israel, who oppose peace, with further evidence that the Palestinians do not genuinely recognize the right of Jewish people to a state.

Though Netanyahu extended an invitation to Abbas to speak in the Knesset, while inviting himself to speak in Ramallah, this was just another “Netanyahuesque” gimmick of a gesture void of substance.

However, if a final status agreement is what they are after, then they live less than an hour from one another (traffic and Israeli checkpoints permitting), and they should start exploring fresh ideas, in resolving this conflict once and for all. My suggestion, don’t hold your breath.
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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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