NEW YORK - Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman can talk until he's blue in the face about how there are more important problems than the Palestinian issue, but the world refuses to buy it. One after another, the leaders have been taking to the podium at the UN General Assembly this week and speaking at length about the need for a Palestinian state: U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took off for New York brimming with self-confidence. Nothing gets his blood pumping like a giving a good speech, especially if you can use terms like "historic," "just path" and "speaking the truth" in press releases afterward. A few hours before he set out, Netanyahu delivered an abbreviated version of his speech before the Likud faction in the Knesset; afterward, the MKs and local authority heads present came up to flatter him, one after another. MK Ofir Akunis suggested that at the UN podium, he present fragments of Grad rockets fired from Gaza. "I won't get this good a reception at the UN," Netanyahu quipped.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians brought an army of spokespeople to New York. They gave interviews on every corner and sometimes even waited their turn, one after the other, to give memorable quotes to the various television networks. The prime minister of Gabon and the president of Austria were never courted quite like this before.
The Palestinians and Israelis exchanged mutual accusations. Nabil Shaath, a member of the Palestinian delegation, called Netanyahu's offer to meet with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas "a theatrical gesture." Cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser told anyone who would listen that the Palestinians were disconnected from reality, and had learned only this week that they would be going back to Ramallah without a state.
The Prime Minister's Bureau portrayed Netanyahu as going off to foil a "Palestinian November 29," referring to the day in 1947 when the UN voted in favor of creating a Jewish state. But the picture couldn't be more different. There won't be any big drama, certainly no nail-biter votes with a Hollywood ending. Abbas will speak, followed by the presidents of Japan and Bhutan, and then Netanyahu will get his turn.
A short while later, Abbas will likely deliver a laconic letter to the UN secretary general that will most likely state: "I hereby request that you ask the Security Council to discuss the acceptance of Palestine as a full member of the UN. Palestine is a peace-loving state that fully accepts the principles of the UN Charter." After that he will head to the airport, to return to Ramallah. For his part, Netanyahu will head to the synagogue near the Regency Hotel, as he starts his long weekend off in the Big Apple.
The expected anticlimax at the UN will allow Netanyahu declare victory this weekend. He may do so as early as Saturday night, or at the pep-rally for coalition members in his home on Monday evening, shortly after he lands at Ben-Gurion International Airport. You see, he'll tell them. I went off to fight for Israel at the UN. Not only is there no Palestinian state, but I even thwarted the vote in the Security Council, he'll say.
The anticlimax is more dangerous for Abbas. Thousands of Palestinians celebrated last weekend in Ramallah as if independence were around the corner. In a matter of hours from now, they will discover that this is not the case.
Shortly before he left for New York, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Netanyahu that the army had no information indicating that the Palestinians plan to launch violent attacks against Israel, but in a conversation with the reporters on his plane, Netanyahu said this could certainly happen.
In a few weeks or months, after a Security Council committee lazily discusses Abbas' request, the Palestinians and the Israelis will return for a second round of wrestling at the UN. But this time the Palestinians will be playing on their "home court": the General Assembly. They'll ask the GA to further upgrade their status to that of an observer state without full UN membership.
This scenario doesn't scare Netanyahu's associates, even if it means that the PA would be able to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. "What matters is the Security Council," says one adviser to the prime minister. "A General Assembly resolution may be unpleasant, but it's not so terrible."
A member of the Palestinian delegation, Dr. Husam Zomlot, told Haaretz that in the short run, this week's events at the UN will further damage Israeli-Palestinian relations at the leadership level, but in the long run it will have a positive effect on the two peoples. "The polls say that 70 percent of Israelis believe in a two-state solution, and the UN application will strengthen the moderate majority that's imprisoned by an overheated minority," he said.
Between the lines
In his 35-minute speech to the General Assembly, Obama said that he is frustrated. Netanyahu and Abbas have apparently tired him out. The president's speech was an admission of failure and an announcement that he is ending his active involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, at least for the rest of this term. Obama does not want this issue to sabotage his chances of reelection, given Republican candidates' attacks on his policy toward Israel and his lower ratings among the Jewish community. Domestic politics means "zero Bibi problems." Ultimately, Obama said in his address, the parties have to resolve the matter themselves, not at the UN. Between the lines, he said: And not through me. His envoys will probably continue efforts to renew the negotiations, but after the president's speech it's unlikely that the Palestinians will take them seriously.
White House officials tried to downplay the importance of the UN proceedings this week, and emphasized that preparations should be made to resume negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians - but they did not announce any concrete plans. Even Obama mentioned an earlier speech he'd made, on May 19, where he said he presented the principles for resuming negotiations at the time. Between the lines, he was hinting: Anyone who has forgotten it can go back and read that speech.
Likewise, at his meeting with Abbas on Wednesday evening, his first in a year, Obama stated once again that the United States would veto a Palestinian move at the Security Council. This time, Obama expressed an emotional feeling vis-a-vis the Jews and the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring - but, as Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi said, he did not evince a drop of solidarity with the Palestinian suffering.
"He said that peace is hard work," she guffawed. "Thanks a lot. After 63 years of occupation, we know."
The rest of the Palestinian delegation tried to be more diplomatic. We understand that now, and perhaps through the end of 2012, Obama will be a slave to domestic politics, and there is no point expecting him to change his position, they said. But that is precisely the reason we turned to the UN, in search of a fairer mediator, they added.
While the Palestinians and Israelis are battling it out at the UN, Obama's campaign managers are fighting for the Jewish vote. They have recruited prominent figures in the community to attest to Obama's pro-Israeli record, launched a new website detailing what the president has done for Israel in the past two years, and even produced a favorable cover story in New York Magazine on "the first Jewish president."
The Jewish organizations in New York had trouble agreeing on whether Obama's speech was good or bad for the Jews. Half, mainly from the center and the right, praised him. The National Jewish Democratic Council had no choice but to join them. "The speech gives little hope to both sides," Americans for Peace Now said.
Minutes after Obama's speech, Lieberman proclaimed that he would have whole-heartedly signed off on the president's words. (Lieberman's own words may yet be cited in the Obama campaign's messages to the Jewish community. ) Nor did Netanyahu's associates conceal their joy.
Netanyahu's close adviser and confidant, Ron Dermer, says that for the past four months, Israeli-American relations have been at their best since Netanyahu took office. "We're on a honeymoon," Dermer said.
Advisers to Netanyahu view his embarrassing lecture in the Oval Office back in May as ancient history. Now there's close diplomatic and security coordination following the American realization that the Arab Spring is not going the way everyone had hoped, they say.
Netanyahu's advisers do not think that Israel will be forced to "repay" an American veto in the Security Council. On the other hand, they know there has been no real change in the personal relationship between the leaders, and that Obama is being guided by specific interests involving the Palestinians' UN bid and domestic American political considerations. A senior official in Obama's administration was quoted anonymously in the New York Magazine article as saying Netanyahu is a small-minded politician who isn't serious about making peace.
History is happening
"History is happening here and now," screams the public relations video that has been playing on loop for the past few days on the plasma screens throughout UN headquarters in New York. Images of leaders appear in quick succession - Nelson Mandela, Muammar Gadhafi, Obama, Fidel Castro and Chaim Herzog, Israel's sixth president and UN ambassador. Herzog is shown tearing up UN Resolution 3379, which declared in November 1975 that Zionism is racism.
Netanyahu, who is also a former UN ambassador, intends to insert some sort of drama in his General Assembly address today. The prime minister, who views this speech as the epitome of the diplomatic act, believes that if he only repeats the message enough times, the world will understand. Two years ago he brandished the Auschwitz plans from the UN podium to warn the world that Iran would wreak a second Holocaust upon Israel. That speech did nothing, however, to stop the centrifuges in Natanz.
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