Most of the media attention around Barack Obama’s combative speech to the UN General Assembly on Monday focused, understandably, on what the U.S. president actually said: his defense of the Iran nuclear deal, harsh words regarding Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, digs at Republicans, and the exchange of barbs between himself and Russian president Vladimir Putin over Syria and Ukraine.
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In Israel, though, the media and the public paid closer attention to what Obama didn’t say. He didn’t mention Israel or Palestine. Not once.
He didn’t even say “Jerusalem” or “Temple Mount” or “Al-Aqsa Mosque”, even though Israel’s security forces clashed with Palestinians protesters at the holy site just hours before he spoke.
A year ago, as violence flared around Al-Aqsa, and journalists were quick to declare this as the beginning of the third Intifada, it would have been unthinkable that Syria would one day get better ratings than Temple Mount.
The world has changed in the past year.
For the past two weeks, violence has continued to plague Jerusalem, as Palestinians barricade themselves within the Al-Aqsa Mosque and pelt police officers with rocks and firebombs. You may have missed it, whereas once you absolutely couldn’t. At this point, it seems only news junkies and certified Israel-Palestine enthusiasts still care enough to follow these events.
All this is a far cry from when journalist Matti Friedman famously decried the media's treatment of Israel-Palestine as “the most important story on earth”. Then, nobody cared about Syria. Today, Syria is perhaps the top story worldwide and the source of escalating tensions between two of the world’s leading superpowers.
ISIS on their minds
Obama’s decision to leave the Israel-Palestinian conflict out of his UN remarks, and the blasé attitude with which the latest round of Temple Mount riots have been received worldwide, are both indicative of a larger trend. It seems that, perhaps fed up with the repetitiveness and lethargy of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the world is starting to lose interest.
In the UN General Assembly, the few world leaders who bothered to mention Israel and Palestine, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah, spoke of it briefly and vaguely, mostly as a backdrop to the extremism of ISIS. Putin made no mention of it either. The world has bigger fish to fry.
Or – possibly, the world is finally treating the conflict according to its actual importance to world affairs, after years and decades of blown-up obsession. If for years, the Israeli-Palestinian issue was amplified to something of global significance, a conflict every superpower had to interfere in, it now seems to have been reduced back to the level of a local squabble over a tiny patch of desert.
A year ago many were concerned that tensions over Temple Mount could explode into a full-blown religious World War III - nowadays, even two weeks of simmering violence on Temple Mount arouse little excitement. What with ISIS and Syria and climate change, with Europe busy with its escalating refugee crisis and the U.S. mired in Trump-mania and Cold War-like struggle with Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suddenly seems insignificant, a speck of dust on a rapidly changing map.
It helps that increasingly, the Israeli-Palestinian issue seems immutable, the result of two peoples hopelessly entangled in a political and demographic impasse, trapped in a repetitive cycle of low-level violence and mini-wars. Like many American presidents before him, Obama tried to move things forward, but post-“chickenshit”-scandal -post-Kerry-initiative-post-Iran-deal-battle, he seems to have given up.
With that, the Israeli right-wing is closer than ever to getting what it truly wants, what it always wanted: to be left alone to its own devices, without pesky journalists and American diplomats butting in.
Israelis, too, have always complained that the world has overstated the importance of the conflict. Now they are getting their wish: finally, they are being ignored.
For Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made it somewhat of a career goal to push the Palestinian issue out of the global conversation, this is a sweet victory. The more the world deals with Syria and ISIS, the less they focus on his utter inability and unwillingness to make bold decisions.
For Palestinians, though, this is an impending disaster. With Palestinian GDP per capita shrinking for three years in a row after years of diminishing aid, decreasing revenues and sundry devastation, Palestinians are now being sidelined, a development that has Palestinian leaders enraged.
Not great for Israel either
For Israel, too, it’s not necessarily a positive development, though to some it might seem like one at first. Desperation among Palestinians could increase the violence, and while the right wing is counting on a very specific scenario - Israel gettings all the military aid and diplomatic protection it currently receives, along with carte blanche permission to do whatever it wants - in the longer term, the reality might turn out to be very different.
Don’t get me wrong: Israel-Palestine is still a top news story, and will no doubt (no doubt!) continue to be so for years to come. There is too much money involved, too many politicians living off of it. But the trend is clear: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is receding into the rearview mirror of global public opinion, along with all its religious overtones, its banal everyday brutality, its entrenched hate and violence. Two peoples once seen as salvageable, now seen, perhaps justly, as a lost cause.