NEW YORK – The impact of the General Assembly addresses by Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN on
Friday could be gauged easily. One could do so without hearing a single
Had a celestial “mute” button been pressed, and no sound at
all emanated from the mouths of the world leaders from the podium, watching the
reactions of the General Assembly would in itself speak a thousand
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The UN, which Netanyahu called a “theater of the absurd” in his
speech, was derided by many over the course of the week for its commemoration of
the anti- Israel Durban conference. But the UN is a place where representatives
of 193 nations convene. And as such, its General Assembly floor is a mirror held
up to the faces of the world, for better or for ill.
As the president of
South Sudan, the newest member of the United Nations, spoke from the podium,
there was a palpable excitement in the air. The seats in the hall filled with
delegation after delegation of suited diplomats assuming their proper places.
Anticipatory chatter bubbled from the desks and the aisles.
speaker – Abbas – was clearly the main event of the day, if not the entire
And then, surprise: The president of Armenia was called to be
escorted to the podium by protocol to speak. The announcement was greeted by the
ruffling of papers and a rumble of mumbled confusion. There had just been a
change in the order of speakers – Abbas would be next. The excitement continued
to mount on the floor of the GA, completely impervious to the words of the
When Armenia finished, there was a rustle in the air comparable
to that of a curtain going up on a stage. There was standing room only in the
observer’s gallery. And as Abbas walked up to the podium, the vast majority of the delegates applauded thunderously, jumping up as
though yanked from their seats by the strings of an invisible puppeteer.
The holdouts were conspicuous. Ambassador to the UN
Susan Rice, in the United States’ seats in the front row with her team, remained
seated and not clapping. The Israeli team did not clap either – and, in fact,
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor left,
making it clear that they had taken their seats only to leave
Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein left
shortly after the speech began, when Abbas began to condemn Israeli
settlements. Everyone else stayed, waiting to hear the promised bit of
history dangled before them. They cheered lustily at the mention of deceased
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. They nodded in agreement as Abbas threw out
barbed words like “ethnic cleansing,” “racism” and “apartheid” directed at
Israel, speaking for the benefit of his Palestinian as well as UN
audience. The remaining Israelis sat silently.
And finally, when
Abbas brandished a copy of the Palestinian application for statehood above his
head like the winner of a relay race holding a baton, the crowd once more leapt
to its feet in applause. They had seen what they had come to see: a historic
moment, a symbolic triumphal gesture.
As the next speaker, Japan, came to
the podium, the energy and concentration of the assembled diplomats dropped
precipitously. Groups of diplomats left, not listening as Prime Minister
Yoshihoko Noda spoke of the tragic earthquake that had befallen his country, and
his land and people’s attempts to pick themselves up from horror and
After Bhutan, Netanyahu approached the podium like the
less-favored fighter coming into the ring. The room that had been so full of
energetic anticipation for Abbas seemed sapped of energy, spent. The prime
minister began by extending the hand of Israel in peace, and continued on to
denigrate the body before which he stood. He denounced those UN delegates who
had listened to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He castigated the body for its inordinate
attention to Israel above all other states. He expressed disbelief that
Lebanon, a Hezbollah-run state, could chair the Security Council.
this and more, he said, rendered the international body a “theater of the
As applause rang loudly from Israel supporters in the gallery,
the collective delegate response came closer to a perfunctory golf
The prime minister referenced applause at least twice in his
speech. “So as Israel’s prime minister, I didn’t come here to win applause,” he
said with the defiant tone of a child confronting a schoolyard bully who knows
that he’s going to get pummeled in response. “I came here to speak the truth.”
While Netanyahu’s truth resonated with the Israel supporters present, others
seemed comparatively impervious to it.
“There’s an old Arab saying that
you cannot applaud with one hand,” the prime minister said toward the end of his
speech. “Well, the same is true of peace.” The hall fairly resonated with the
sound of one hand clapping.
There are those who deride the UN as a
circus, or even the “theater of the absurd.” It is certainly a place where, for
a week, dictators are chaperoned around town in black cars and decry evil in
other parts of the world than their own. But whether or not the UN is the
theater of the absurd, the drama portrayed on its stage is one that stays with
someone who has seen it, long after the show is over.