NEW YORK – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Western Europe when United States President Barack Obama took the podium at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to give his eighth and last speech to the annual gathering of world leaders in New York.
Even before he took off on his trip, Netanyahu knew that neither Israel nor the Palestinians would be a central issue in Obama’s speech and, indeed, they weren’t. Nevertheless, in comparison to last year, when Obama didn’t mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all, this year he devoted two-and-a-half sentences to it.
Obama’s speech was a summation of his progressive, liberal, optimistic worldview. He used it primarily to assail all those leaders who for him represent its antithesis – conservatism, pessimism, cynicism and sanctification of the status quo. Even if he didn’t say so directly, he includes both Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas in this category.
In their conduct over the last seven-and-a-half years, Netanyahu and Abbas have been mirror images of each other. Obama will carry the scars of his efforts to push these two leaders to make progress toward peace for many years to come.
Obama mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict briefly, almost cursorily. But he hit the nail on the head in defining the roots of the impasse in the peace process.
On the Palestinian side, there are violence, incitement and a leadership that still refuses to recognize that in order to establish an independent state, it will have to compromise. It will not receive 100 percent of its historical demands, from either the territorial or the national standpoint.
On the Israeli side, there are 50 years of occupation and settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which the leadership not only refuses to stop, but is further entrenching every day, to the point where an irreversible reality is being created – a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in which almost half the residents lack equal rights.
But Netanyahu knows that the U.S. president’s speech to the UN General Assembly isn’t the important one. The important speech is the one Obama hasn’t yet given – the one that might be given in another two months, after the U.S. presidential election.
It is the speech in which Obama will try to leave a lasting legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue by laying down principles for resolving all the core issues: borders, refugees, security and, above all, Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s fear is that once such a speech is given, the road to turning it into a UN Security Council resolution will be short.
That is why the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC has worked hard over the past few weeks, apparently at the urging of Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, to recruit senators from both parties to sign a letter to Obama on this issue. Of the 100 senators, 88 ultimately signed the letter, which was sent to Obama on Monday. To achieve this impressive number of signatories, it was necessary to make the letter’s wording sufficiently vague.
The senators urged Obama to veto any “one-sided” resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian issue submitted to the UN Security Council by another country prior to January 20, the day he leaves office. The letter doesn’t demand that he refrain from promoting an American initiative, which everyone knows wouldn’t be “one-sided,” but would also demand concessions of the Palestinians. One example of this is America’s support for Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize it as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
The White House and the U.S. State Department have been working on various options and scenarios for American action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will eventually bring these ideas to the president for consideration. At this stage, Obama hasn’t yet decided whether he wants to give a speech on the issue or take some other step. And he won’t deal with the issue until after the presidential election in early November.
But if Obama decides to do something, the senators’ letter won’t stop him. And if he decides he wants to do so, he also doesn’t need this letter to veto initiatives by other countries.
On Wednesday, Obama and Netanyahu will meet face to face for the last time. The speech Obama hasn’t yet given and the action he hasn’t yet taken will be the elephant in the room.
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