Capitol Letter / A Craving for Normalcy

For some, celebrities and business leaders seemed more fun than the speeches at the General Assembly, where even many delegates didn't bother to appear excessively attentive.

Some of the reporters covering the United Nations General Assembly escaped last week for several hours to the Sheraton hotel on New York's 7th Avenue, where the annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative was taking place, hiding their blue UN tags under the jolly yellow ones of the Clintons' conference.

For some, celebrities and business leaders seemed more fun than the speeches at the General Assembly, where even many delegates didn't bother to appear excessively attentive. Plus, as a bonus, there was Chelsea Clinton interviewing her mother, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in such a comfortable manner that it made some wonder why she doesn't finally abandon her self-imposed media recluse. And there was also Sting, who sang at the Global Citizens awards ceremony to close the conference.

Mahmoud Abbas AP Sept. 23, 2010

For me, it was fascinating to pass several hours listening to the troubles around the world - the famine in Somalia, the systematic rape of women in Congo as part of warfare, diseases, unemployment and some inspiring initiatives related to rain forests and clean cooking stoves - without having to cringe each time Israel was mentioned; because it simply wasn't (until former President Bill Clinton lambasted Benjamin Netanyahu at his roundtable with bloggers).

Frankly, I was hoping that at the UN General Assembly on Friday, Netanyahu, instead of scrupulously refuting Abbas' speech and supplying the Web junkies with two more hits ("dugri" and the "insatiable crocodile of terror" ), would have spoken more about how Israel and its innovative solutions could help other countries with their troubles. Turkey might reject Israel's drones, but if Israel could offer some irresistible high-tech gadget, it would probably be far more difficult to boycott it.

Unfortunately, however, the relationship between Israel and the world became defined in terms of public advocacy against the recognition of the Palestinian state and the fight against delegitimization.

Some friendly diplomats commended the Israeli leader's speech, saying his tone after Abbas's crescendo, which earned the Palestinian leader a standing ovation, was a return to proportions (not everything worked well - after Abbas's "settlers with their hounds", Netanyahu's claim, "I removed hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints to ease freedom of movement in the Palestinian areas" seemed only to underscore Abbas' claim about the lack of basic freedom in the territories).

And many delegates didn't even bother to listen. Some rushed to congratulate Abbas, ignoring the Japanese prime minister who spoke after him about the aftermath of the horrendous earthquake that had devastated parts of his country.

It was pretty ironic to listen to both leaders "extending hands in peace" - clearly talking to someone else.

"I am here to say on behalf of the Palestinian people and the Palestine Liberation Organization: We extend our hands to the Israeli government and the Israeli people for peace-making. I say to them: Let us urgently build together a future for our children where they can enjoy freedom, security and prosperity. Let us build the bridges of dialogue instead of checkpoints and walls of separation, and build cooperative relations based on parity and equity between two neighboring states - Palestine and Israel - instead of policies of occupation, settlement, war and eliminating the other", Abbas said.

Most of the Israeli delegation had already left the hall because he had previously slammed their "apartheid policy."

Then Netanyahu said, "President Abbas, I extend my hand - the hand of Israel - in peace. I hope that you will grasp that hand," when Abbas was already on his way to the hotel, to pack his bags on the way back to Ramallah. Only one man was left where the Palestinian delegation was sitting.

Peace optimists may have hoped to see Netanyahu rush out, fly urgently back to Israel and try to stalk Abbas in Ramallah, to grasp his hand, extended in peace. Instead, however, Netanyahu remained in New York until Sunday evening, to grant a bunch of interviews to the world and U.S. press, talking about his disappointment with Abbas' speech and the crocodile of terror. Abbas, meanwhile, was busy criticizing the Quartet statement that was supposed to pave a road to a return to negotiations.

There was at least one other place in New York that week in which a real dialogue about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was held. Like on some other campuses in the United States, at the Hamilton Lawn of Columbia University, an "open dialogue" tent was erected; and for the first time in the past two years there, Israeli envoy Tor Tsuk was able to speak to students from the campus' pro-Palestinian organization for about three hours.

"Usually, they are pretty aggressive in their outreach; there is not much talk", Tsuk told Haaretz. "But this time, although it was very emotional and harshly argumentative at times, we talked. They spoke about the exile and said that the Israeli occupation did not allow them to realize their national identity. The Jewish students were talking about their identity, their connection to the Land of Israel, the more complex Israel, outside the conflict. Intentionally this time, we didn't invite Israeli officials so as to facilitate this dialogue."

The problem is the participants were mainly Americans of Palestinian origin (nevertheless, seeing themselves as refugees ) and Jewish Americans. So far, we have seen no open tent in Jerusalem or Ramallah. As for the U.S. president, his very general speech at the General Assembly this year sent a pretty clear message to the Israeli and Palestinians: "I have some domestic troubles to take care of. When you show you are more serious, you know where to find me."