Three speeches, no progress

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Last week, we heard three dramatic speeches at the United Nations General Assembly that were ostensibly intended to offer new ideas for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. They did not.

United States President Barack Obama made an unusually pro-Israel speech that was obviously motivated by domestic American political considerations. Obama made clear that he was abdicating a leadership role regarding Israel-Palestine for the coming US election year. It’s doubtful the rest of the Quartet, meaning essentially Europe, can fill the gap.

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas presented a very one-sided defense of his appeal for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood that devoted long minutes to the de-legitimization of another state, Israel. Anyone who can describe the holy land as the land of the prophets Jesus and Mohammad alone, in a willful denial of the Jewish people’s roots, is not a candidate to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Abbas, who totally ignored the American role in his speech and whose spokesmen had earlier indicated they would no longer accept American mediation–apparently because they were upset at Obama’s unequivocal condemnation of their appeal to the UN–signaled once again that the Palestinian leadership does not know how to read Washington. Yet, Abbas probably registered enough leadership points with Palestinians back home in the West Bank and with Arabs everywhere to maintain control over events to come.

And Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a good case for Israel’s security concerns, but sorely distorted the options for dealing with them. He ignored the damning effect of the occupation on Israel and offered the Palestinians no new terms for a breakthrough toward peace. He shored up his support base in both Israel and the US but left Israel as isolated as before.

We are now apparently going to enter upon two interlocking processes that go nowhere. The Security Council will delay the Palestinian bid for state recognition; at some point, the process may metamorphose into General Assembly approval for observer-state status. In parallel, and with the objective of delaying that process, the Quartet is trying to persuade Israel and the PLO to renew final-status negotiations. In the unlikely event both sides can be brought to agree, those negotiations will go nowhere, because the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships are too far apart on virtually all likely agenda items.

In the best case–meaning violence is somehow averted–in a few months or even a year we’ll be right back where we were last week. Abbas will not have created a real Palestinian state; neither will the UN. Netanyahu will not have prevented a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem–his and his coalition colleagues’ real objective. The US will have done nothing, and without it, the rest of the Quartet will have exercised precious little influence.

Yet, despite all these failures, there remains a very important message of substance in Abbas’ decision to take his case to the UN. The Oslo accords have run their course and we need a new, state-to-state paradigm for dealing with those final-status issues–territory, security–that are directly linked to Palestinian statehood and appear to be negotiable. On the other hand, we have to use the state-to-state paradigm to postpone the "existential" or "narrative" issues–refugees, holy places–that have repeatedly thwarted Oslo-based final status negotiations, as Abbas demonstrated so deplorably in his General Assembly speech.

We have to recognize that there may be better ways to solve some of the Israeli-Palestinian final status issues, but we’ll also have to suffice for the near term with merely managing the remainder. Sadly, that message was absent from all three speeches and, presumably, from the understanding of all three principals.

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