A Clash of Narratives as Abbas and Netanyahu Duel It Out at the UN

Both Abbas and Netanyahu spoke well, from their own point of view, but each spoke past each other and to completely different audiences.

NEW YORK – There was little room for optimism at the end of what some may describe as a historic day in which Palestine asked for UN recognition while its leader Mahmoud Abbas went head to head with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the entire world to see.

Both Abbas and Netanyahu spoke well, from their own point of view, but each spoke past each other and to completely different audiences. Theirs was a dialogue of the deaf, a clash of divergent narratives; proof, if one was needed, that Israelis and Palestinians reside in parallel universes, and never the twain shall meet, if nothing dramatic occurs.

Netanyahu, Abbas - AP - Sept 2 2010

Abbas was courting the Palestinians, first and foremost, and his target audiences were the Arab and Third Worlds. His speech was peppered with the kind of harsh anti-Israeli catchphrases that are the staple of the UN’s “automatic majority” at forums like Durban and the Human Rights Council, including “apartheid”, “colonialism”, “racism” and “ethnic cleansing”. Fresh off the heels of the stinging rebuke he sustained in U.S. President Barack Obama’s UN speech this week, Abbas was obviously in no mood to please Americans or Israelis, opting instead for a no-holds-barred presentation of the Palestinian narrative that grated on the ears of most Israelis but fueled the enthusiasm of his many supporters in the General Assembly building.

Netanyahu, for his part, addressed those parts of the world that Abbas chose to ignore. In a well-executed though rather long-winded presentation - which drew most of its applause from the Israeli delegation and an imported crowd of cheerleaders - Netanyahu cast himself as a Daniel in the hyenas’ den of the UN’s anti-Israeli bloc, appointed himself a spokesman for “100 generations of Jews”, rebuffed Abbas’ more incendiary allegations and saved a little something for each of his favorite groups: the Lubavitcher Rebbe for religious Jews, a citation from the Bible for evangelical Christians, the memory of 9/11 for his American audience and the invitation to Abbas to “talk dugri”, the Israeli equivalent of the American “talk turkey”, for his Israeli voters at home.

But though they pledged their supposed allegiance to a negotiated two-state solution, Abbas and Netanyahu made no effort to hide their deep mistrust of each other’s true intentions and their mutual underlying assumption that they both lack a credible partner for peace. Nonetheless - in the only bit of good news for those who insist on maintaining a slight glimmer of hope despite all the proof to the contrary – in the wake of the Quartet’s call Friday, Washington is sure to seek an early resumption of peace talks, if only to rid the United States of the political hot potato that Abbas dumped on its lap when he decided to press ahead with his big UN offensive.

Follow Chemi Shalev on Twitter @ChemiShalev