In proximity to one another, separated at the rostrum by less than 15 minutes at the grandest of stages, the leaders of Palestine and Israel grasped the world's attention at the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) General Debate in New York City.
During both war and peace, titans of a seemingly unending struggle and polar opposites in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) convincingly traded barbed rhetoric. The electricity in the air at the august forum was indeed palpable for the better part of an hour in the afternoon of Sept. 27, 2012. As both parties' delegations were situated a short distance apart, security within the hall was increased. In 2011, during the General Debate, there was a large skirmish in the press gallery between the two parties. Additionally, several members of the Turkish delegation became involved, and eventually the K9 unit was called in to disperse the combatants. Civility persevered this time around and with the hall more than 90% full, hundreds were in attendance, ready to become keen and astute observers.
Twenty-Four Variants of "Occupy"
Abbas was the first of the two men to speak. As a non-member observer entity, Palestine's delegation had been represented by Abbas at the UNGA every year since 2006. A captivating figure, a short, stocky and bespectacled Abbas received sustained applause as he prepared to make his address in Arabic, beginning at 12:55 local time, or 18:55 in East Jerusalem. Several times throughout the afternoon, representatives from the majority of the 193 countries interrupted the chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with applause.
Fast-forward to mid-November and, with Palestinians witnessing hundreds of attacks in Gaza, Abbas' opening comments at the UN were perhaps prescient, quantifying the encroachments made since the beginning of 2012 into Palestinian territory. This formulated an argument where Abbas used 24 variants of "occupy" in his diction. He littered his address with pointed inflection to an audience who would decide the path toward recognized statehood at the UN level.
"My people will continue their epic steadfastness and eternal survival in their beloved land, every inch of which carries the evidence and landmarks affirming their roots and unique connection throughout ancient history," Abbas said in the English statement made available by the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN. "There is no homeland for us except Palestine, and there is no land for us but Palestine."
Finishing his address at 13:27 local time, Abbas received a prolonged standing ovation by many of the members on the floor, including the rotating president of the UNGA, Vuk Jeremic. Temporarily remaining in the UNGA hall, Abbas appeared very appreciative and humbled, folding his hands and soaking up the atmosphere.
"Life, Not Death, Is More Fun"
Understandably a difficult act to follow, an imposing, yet confident figure in Netanyahu began his address in English shortly thereafter at 13:41, affirming the thousands of years of history rooted in the state of Israel. Speaking a day after Yom Kippur, he emphasized that "the Jewish state will live forever" and "we will never be uprooted again." Both statements were reciprocated by rapturous applause from the section containing VIPs and the Israeli delegation's entourage. The rest of the hall remained eerily silent for the next 30 minutes while the prime minister spoke. Many commentators will remember the address because of the red marker and visual aid Netanyahu used to illustrate Iran's progress toward a nuclear bomb. The clear, succinct message voiced was that "if faced with a clear red line, Iran. Will. Back. Down."
His right to reply to Abbas' address included the verbiage "we won't solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the UN" and "unilateral speeches of statehood at the UN," insisting that Israel and the world need a demilitarized Palestine if peace is to prevail. This region, Netanyahu said, should be driven by freedom, not terrorism and fanaticism, making a poignant remark that "life, not death, is more fun."
Whether the two men presented empty rhetoric and satisfied their backers in the short term or in fact challenged scholarship in order to change the status quo in the long term is up for debate.
A Mandate from the General Debate
Certainly what was demonstrable over the course of the General Debate from Sept. 25-Oct. 1 were the several dozen mentions, dominated by African and Asian members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), in aiming to adopt a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel. Cognizant of this overarching theme, Jeremic used the 67th session's closing statement to emphasize that a veritable solution "would take into account the legitimate concerns of Israelis and Palestinians, including viability and security. […] [R]esumption of negotiations […] would lead to a comprehensive solution, underlining the importance for the international community to strengthen support for the peace process."
The previous month, delegations of four countries were denied entry to attend a NAM meeting in Ramallah because their nations do not recognize Israel. A couple of days later, in late August, Abbas attended the NAM summit in Tehran but only after prime minister of the PNA, Ismail Haniyeh, declined the host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's invitation. This tenuous geopolitical brinkmanship is noteworthy because, with 120 members (and nearly two dozen observers) in NAM, its countries are fervent backers of the peace process that Jeremic underlined. Their votes will also be important with the Nov. 29 vote that will begin the incredibly complicated, yet inevitably successful, path within a UN bureaucracy for Palestinian statehood.
There's No 'I' in U.S.
Palestine was admitted to the NAM in 1976. Now, more than 35 years later, its fellow members will counter votes within the UNGA from Western Europe and notably the U.S. against enhancing Palestine's status at the UN. When the GA meets, each vote is considered equal without the threat of a veto power from permanent members of the UN Security Council. The passing of such a far-reaching resolution will undoubtedly have immediate ramifications. When Palestine became a member of another international organ, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in October 2011, the U.S. announced plans to withhold its $60 million payment to UNESCO. The individual contribution accounts for 22% of the annual intake of monies, according to the U.S. Department of State. Analysts from with inside the Islamic world, notably Al Jazeera and the Pakistani daily newspaper DAWN, reasoned that although more than 60% of nations voted in favor of the Palestinian measure, there were 52 abstentions. A similar voting pattern will emerge from the UNGA, but not without arrearage conditions. Beginning in January 2014, because of lack in payment of membership dues, the U.S. will cease to have a vote and a seat at the UNESCO general conference.
For most of the last 20 years there has been grumbling within the UNGA and UN Security Council for similar reasons as the U.S. continues to remain in monetary arrears. UN spokesperson Farhan Haq revealed to Reuters that outstanding monies totaled $736.2 million as of November 2010. Time-sensitive figures from the UN are not always available; case in point, the Global Policy Forum in New York City, a comprehensive source for the UN, issues a disclaimer that UN data is not always reliable, so one should err on the side of caution to conclude that this is a rough estimation two years out of date.
Nevertheless, Article 19 of the UN Charter states in part that a member of the UN "[…] which is in arrears in the payment of its financial contributions to the organization shall have no vote in the General Assembly if the amount of its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years." As Rotary World Peace Scholar Alison Bond rightly pointed out in the Berkeley Journal of International Law, "Large debts to the UN inhibit its function as a forum for multilateral decision making. Thus multilateralism can be understood as not merely participation in UN activities, but also as actions that facilitate the effectiveness of the UN." Bond posited this in 2003, yet it remains timeless because it highlights the inner machinations of a U.S. vote as well as the future when a resolution on Palestinian statehood reaches the Security Council.
What Does All of This Mean?
Bound by a big bully form of unilateralism, a UN body might become as irrelevant as its predecessor in the League of Nations. Confronting topical geopolitical current affairs which include a Middle East tinderbox that invariably emanates from a difference in ideology harbored in a bastion of democracy in Israel versus an Arab panoply should remain the U.S.'s modus vivendi. The UN only remains as strong as its weakest link. Should the U.S. become a chink in the armor, or even a liability for Israel and Palestine before talks collapse beyond reconciliation, a Pandora's box could very well be opened.
A shaken Gaza, the status of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the sovereignty of the Golan Heights, a nuclear Iran, a humanitarian disaster in Syria, ad infinitum, will soon dominate U.S. President Barack Obama's second term foreign policy agenda. In a Nov. 8 op-ed in the New York Times, Paul Wolfowitz, neoconservative hawk and former deputy secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, said that Obama "[…] can't afford not to lead," and that abandoning nation-building abroad would be, from the commander-in-chief's own determination, a "false choice." Simply put, for a reinvigorated Obama, a glimpse into the next four years would more than likely not see him sitting down with the two sides to hammer out a two-state solution.
As Daniel Byman and Natan Sachs point out in Foreign Affairs, "[n]egotiations between Israel and the Palestinians remain deadlocked, and even their meaningful resumption, let alone success, seems unlikely in the near future." Writing in the September/October issue, prior to the recent violence in Gaza, Byman and Sachs were correct in saying that, "[a]lthough most Israelis support an agreement in principle […] they blame the Palestinians for the continuation of the conflict and remain skeptical about the odds for a deal in the near future."
Challenges and Games
Palestinian statehood, a volte-face for the U.S., would necessitate that talks originate at the UN level and the situation may very well end up reverting to the eight years of the Bush administration when it was a non-issue. Arguably, it could depreciate in importance and be designated as part of the Obama legacy, occurring near the expiration of his term in January 2016. If this sounds familiar, the Taba talks under the Clinton Parameters aimed for something similar in late 2000 and early 2001. Talks were halted because of elections in Israel and the inauguration of a new U.S. president.
Still, Abbas remained hopeful as he addressed the UNGA. "We realize that ultimately the two peoples must live and coexist, each in their respective state, in the Holy Land. Further, we realize that progress towards making peace is through negotiations between the PLO and Israel. Despite all the complexities of the prevailing reality and all the frustrations that abound, we say before the international community: there is still a chance - maybe the last - to save the two-state solution and to salvage peace."
To borrow a phrase from Wolfowitz's former boss at the Department of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, what is a "known known" is that Abbas' survival as head of the PNA may very well be akin to a favorable and "moral" victory at the UNGA. Meanwhile, Netanyahu exhibited a realpolitik-cum-survival of the fittest attitude leading up to the January 2013 snap parliamentary election with hoped-for gains in the Knesset. Prior to the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed al Jaabari on Nov. 14, 2012, Netanyahu was treading on thin ice. Now he has been re-elected, though with diminished power. And during Obama's recent visit, just two days after the new Israeli government was formed, he tried to warm up their frosty relations, a man he hoped wouldn't still be in the White House after the November 2012 elections. Differences will have to be put aside between the two men before actionable change for a bevy of issues occurs.
Scorched Earth Can Only Be Averted with Washington's Help
As always, there are a number of challenges ahead, presenting an intricate matrix that results in a large gray area. For most of 2012, Iran was at the forefront of the world's alarmed attention. For the time being and until after a change in leadership occurs in Tehran, this will cease to be the case. Then, over the course of a few months and highlighted at the UNGA, the pressing issue appeared to be the question of Palestinian statehood, placing it front and center. A wolf in sheep's clothing, it is primarily a mission motivated to resurrect the political life of Abbas. However, soon this point may be moot. Present day dictates that the Middle East is on fire and that a scorched earth will be narrowly averted only with Washington's help, by proxy or otherwise. Long forgotten in the annals of Middle East history will be what two men spoke so passionately about on a perfect afternoon in New York City, now unfortunately relegated to simple pawns in the grand chess match.