Benjamin Netanyahu is lucky that his competition comes from such an underwhelming orator as Mahmoud Abbas. Besides the fact that the Palestinian president prefers to speak in Arabic in a decidedly, excuse the pun, subdued manner, Abbas always sounds as if he’s more concerned what the guys in Hamas and Islamic Jihad at home will say than how his speech will be received by diplomats and public opinion in Paris or New York. Conventional Israeli wisdom once held that Arab leaders tell their public one thing in Arabic and sound much more moderate when they speak to international audiences in English, but it seems to be the other way around. Palestinians don’t allow their leaders to tailor their words to please foreign ears nor are they willing to make allowances for the sake of hasbara, as most Israelis do.
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It’s highly doubtful, after all, if there are many Israelis who actually believe Netanyahu when he says he is full committed to a two-state solution. All but the most delusional of Israelis understand that someone who depicts evacuation of settlers as “ethnic cleansing,” who has no intention of giving the Palestinians an inch in Jerusalem, who insists that the Israeli army will remain responsible for security in every nook and cranny inside the so-called “Palestinian territories” doesn’t really mean “two states for two peoples” in any ordinary sense of the term. But for the sake of hasbara, for the show that Netanyahu puts on every year at the United Nations, for the hope that our winning arguments will melt hearts and break down walls, even right wing parties such as Habayit Hayehudi and its Tekuma faction are willing to turn a blind eye, as long as they can discern that Netanyahu himself is winking.
This time Netanyahu invited Abbas to Jerusalem and himself to Ramallah, as he has in the past, and the novelty, such as it was, lay in his promotion of a regional framework for peace which the Palestinians can join or not, it’s up to them. Everyone knows such a proposal isn’t serious, that Netanyahu’s new friends in Cairo, Riyadh or Amman wouldn’t dare come to talks unless the Palestinians take center stage. But it gives the prime minister’s fans an opportunity to cheer his rhetorical prowess, to admire how he put the bad world in its place, to clap at his exposure of Abbas and the Palestinians for the terrorists that they are. Each and every member of the cheerleader squad that traditionally accompanies Netanyahu to his General Assembly speech - and which had to work extra hard this year to make up for the nearly empty UN auditorium - probably walked up after his address to tell him he was at his best.
In fact, he wasn’t. Without an awesome gimmick such as a caricature of a nuclear bomb or diagrams from Auschwitz or a full minute of silence from the podium, Netanyahu’s speech lacked a tag line or peg or a surprise or an innovation that will etch it in anyone’s memory. It was a polished speech, of course, but one that wandered rather dramatically from high points to low, manic-depressive style, from a strange new dawn about to rise over Israel’s stature at the UN to the familiar complaints that the whole world is against us. Most world leaders use their General Assembly speeches to show solidarity with the persecuted and downtrodden throughout the world or to address some universal challenge, such this year’s blockbuster, global warming, but Netanyahu sticks to Israel and himself. We are alternatively greater and smarter than everyone else, but, concurrently, the helpless nebbish that everyone is ganging up on.
It’s true, however, that Netanyahu had good reason to be smug this year, and the best evidence of that was, in fact, the scores of UN diplomats who abandoned their seats in favor of a lunch at some posh East Side restaurant or solid schmoozing over a sandwich outside in the hall. They didn’t leave because of anti-Semitism, God forbid, but to prevent themselves from falling asleep in their seats. Netanyahu, in a surprising collaborative effort with Abbas, has managed to exhaust just about everyone. After nearly 50 years of occupation, most of the international community is fed up with both leaders, with both nations, with one state or two-states, with direct negotiations, regional conferences, outside mediation and all that peace process mumbo jumbo. Do whatever you want, the world is saying, kill each other if you are so inclined; just leave us alone because we’re dealing with bigger problems.
This was especially true this year, in a twilight zone between a departing U.S. president and the fateful decision by American voters between his two potential successors; because the Iran nuclear issue is effectively off the table for the next few years, despite Netanyahu’s bombastic warnings that “we’ll never allow” etc. and the GOP stirring up trouble in the Senate; because the spate of Palestinian knifing attacks that put Israelis on edge doesn’t cross the threshold of what interests the world; and because there’s a limit to how many times the world can hear the listless speeches of Abbas or the verbal acrobatics of Netanyahu, when nothing on the ground ever changes.
Maybe that’s the reason Netanyahu could extract $38 billion from the U.S. without Washington asking for anything in return: they knew there was no point. The measured smile on Obama’s face as he met Netanyahu on Wednesday said it all: his frustration at failing to change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was tempered by his relief that he won’t have to deal with Netanyahu’s perennially self-satisfied speeches any more.