The speeches delivered on September 23, 2011 to the UN General Assembly by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not have been more different, both in content and form. Using the language of international law and human rights, President Abbas presented an articulate and impassioned plea for long overdue international recognition of a Palestinian state. In the hopes of countering this powerful narrative, Prime Minister Netanyahu preyed upon fear and base emotion, invoking the bogeyman of a nuclear-armed Iran and the rise of militant Islam in the Occupied Territories.
However, a look beneath the surface of both speeches reveals a more extensive and arguably more interesting story. Abbas’ speech tells the story of a leader enjoying dubious popularity and legitimacy, belatedly finding his voice, and receiving rapturous applause for his unusually charismatic and emotive speech. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s speech, at times hectoring, at others tellingly defensive, betrays the isolation and pressure felt by Israel’s currently bewildered leaders, who have been unable to comprehend, let alone respond to, the changing world around them.
Mahmoud Abbas: A Man with Little to Lose
Abbas departed Ramallah for New York with little fanfare. As the weak leader of a weak organization beholden to the Israeli occupational authorities, expectations of Abbas were, to say the least, modest. Since ascending to the head of the PLO and PA after the death of Yasser Arafat, Abbas’ authority had been continuously undermined by unceasing Israeli settlement construction and military incursions. In short, as Abbas approached the General Assembly podium, he was a man with little to lose.
With the United States vowing to use its Security Council veto against the statehood bid, the initiatives failure was a forgone conclusion long before Abbas stood before the General Assembly. No amount of applause from the gathered delegates could change that fact. Nevertheless, optics are important here. Through the statehood bid and Abbas’ speech, the intransigence of Israel and its American benefactor, as well as the injustice of continuing to deny Palestinian self-determination, were starkly apparent.
Notwithstanding this important dimension, however, the question remains as to why Abbas undertook what could arguably be labeled a futile exercise, which not only engendered American and Israeli hostility but also divided Palestinian opinion. In contrast to pursuing non-member observer status, which could have been easily obtained through a General Assembly vote, the PA’s pursuit of full UN membership through the Security Council places the United States in the uncomfortable position of exercising its veto on Israel’s behalf. This strategy is surprisingly confrontational for a Palestinian political leadership that has been so compliant with the whims and caprices of Israel and the United States since the 1993 Oslo Accords that it has come to be seen as an Israeli agent.
This is, in itself, part of the explanation. Having recently seen other, far more firmly entrenched Arab leaders ousted from power and others under severe threat, Mahmoud Abbas, with his ever-keen instinct for survival and self-preservation, realized something had to be done to forestall a similar fate. Abbas’ popularity, to say nothing of his legitimacy – shaky at the best of times – has been vulnerable to the tide of popular discontent sweeping the Arab world. If the normally docile and acquiescent populations of Egypt and Libya have risen up to oust their leaders, what of the significantly more restive Palestinians? While this may be a cynical analysis, there is little evidence to indicate that the Palestinian political leadership operates according to anything other than cynical considerations.
Notwithstanding these less than altruistic motivations, Abbas’ speech itself was remarkably and refreshingly sincere and free of prevarication. Charisma, never one of Abbas’ strong suits, seemed to exude from him as he stood at the podium and recounted the Palestinians’ history of dispossession and continuous attempts to achieve peace and establish a homeland. Abbas spoke eloquently of Palestinian dispossession, of consecutive Palestinian attempts to resolve the conflict and the painful (many Palestinians would say too painful) concessions and sacrifices that have been made. He did not mince his words, speaking frankly and forthrightly about continued Israeli colonization of the West Bank, Israeli occupation policies, and the attempts at ethnic cleansing supported by those policies. Twelve times during his speech, Abbas had to pause to allow the standing ovations sweeping the Assembly to pass. With every round of applause, the American and Israeli delegations could do little but maintain the blank expressions on their faces. The mounting isolation these two countries had backed themselves into had become abundantly clear.
Receiving a hero’s welcome from thousands waving Palestinian flags and carrying his picture, Abbas’ return to Ramallah differed markedly from his departure. Although Abbas will not obtain UN approval for a Palestinian state, he has scored a victory, both personally and in the court of public opinion.
Benjamin Netanyahu: Mirroring Israeli Malaise
Netanyahu habitually receives a warm welcome in the United States. Who, after all, could forget the adulation that greeted his address to Congress on May 24 of this year. His reception in the UN General Assembly could not, however, have presented a stronger contrast. Netanyahu attributed this cool reception to the General Assembly’s purported, long-standing history of targeting Israel for criticism. Indeed, Netanyahu stated outright that he had not come to the UN to win applause. True to his word, Netanyahu failed to garner much support from the audience, which had significantly thinned after Abbas’ speech only a few hours earlier. During his speech, Netanyahu did not miss the opportunity to chastise the General Assebly for passing the infamous Zionism is Racism resolution of 1975. He referred to the General Assembly as an “unfortunate part of the UN institution,” “a place of darkness,” and a “theatre of the absurd,” stating outright that “a terror organization presides over the body entrusted with guaranteeing the world’s security” in the form of “Hezbollah-controlled” Lebanon’s presidency of the Security Council.
Netanyahu peppered his speech with many of the old platitudes we’ve heard time and again from Israel’s leaders. Among these, he harped on Israel’s alleged status as the “only democracy” in the Middle East, an assertion with which Turkey would undoubtedly take issue. That Netanyahu persisted in repeating long-discredited arguments like this is symptomatic of a deeper malaise afflicting Israeli politics. More than anything else, his speech demonstrated the inability of Israel’s political leadership to grasp the realities of a changing world. The Arab Spring is, of course, the most recent example of this change, signaling as it does the concomitant decline of US influence in the Middle East and the rise of democratic mass movements in the Arab world. Other global changes have also been afoot, which have rightly concerned Israel’s leaders. On American university campuses, telling bellwethers of the future of American politics, support for Israel has been gradually and steadily eroding, while pro-Palestinian activism has steadily increased. Even America’s Jewish community, known for being even more hawkishly pro-Israel than Israel’s own population, has shown signs of waning support, with a younger generation of American Jews more willing to criticize Israel’s actions and less likely to self-identify as “Zionist”. Meanwhile, the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been ramping up pressure on Israel. Recently, the BDS movement scored a number of important, albeit largely symbolic victories in its campaign to discourage artists, corporations, and other organizations from abetting Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Among the most telling aspects of Netanyahu’s speech against Palestinian statehood was his resort to the bankrupt vocabulary of the clash of civilizations. It is clear from his speech that Netanyahu’s worldview consists of an enlightened, democratic, peace-loving, Judeo-Christian West against a backward, repressive, violent, Muslim world. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Netanyahu attempted to conflate Iranian nuclear ambitions with Palestinian statehood. While in reality having no bearing to one another, for Netanyahu these two issues exist as part of the same Islamic threat to Israel.
One can hardly blame Netanyahu for resorting to the tried and true Islamic bogeyman to scare the world into acquiescence. For quite some time, and particularly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, it was indeed an effective strategy. But in the decade since then, the argument has lost much of its weight. It has been the Arab Spring and not the interminable War on Terror that has spelled the end of Al-Qaeda and its ilk. What Netanyahu’s speech failed to grasp is that the people of the Arab world have hungrily sought freedom, liberty, and democracy, and that the Israeli occupation of Palestine continues to be one of the biggest fetters to achieving those lofty goals.
Mahmoud Abbas emerged as the clear winner in the showdown between the two leaders. To the international community (excluding Israel and the US), Abbas’ bid for Palestinian statehood showed him to be a diplomat peacefully seeking the Palestinian people’s long-overdue right to self determination. For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas’ speech has, for the time being at least, garnered him greater support and legitimacy. Netanyahu, on the other hand, was left alone in the political wilderness. Rather than swaying public opinion to his side, Netanyahu’s speech demonstrated the increasing isolation of the American-Israeli position. Given waning American influence in the Middle East and Israel’s continued intransigence, this isolation will only increase as global consensus increasingly comes to favor Palestinian rights.
* Joseph Farag is a doctoral candidate at Queen Mary, University of London. His research covers politics and identity in Palestinian literature after 1948.