The scenic, 18-acre riverfront property that is United Nations headquarters is protected international territory, legally distinct from its New York environs. For some heads of state who make the annual September pilgrimage to address the UN General Assembly, the enclave also is a welcome shelter from political reality.

Certain leaders project their narrow world views without questions from the attending heads of state and their entourages. For the opening of the 2012 session, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stood out in creating visions that do not exist outside the UN. The lack of response within the world body affirmed how the annual exercise of endless speech-making does little to advance peace and security.

Ahmadinejad, on his eighth annual appearance, was off his mark in the General Assembly, though he did repeat in a press briefing the Iranian leadership threat to “eliminate” Israel. One European diplomat, explaining the failure of any of the 27 European Union nations to walk out during Ahmadinejad’s speech, said that his usual diatribes against Israel and Holocaust denial were absent.

The Iranian president was simply “incoherent,” the diplomat sheepishly remarked, and that apparently did not warrant leaving the hall.

Canada, the United States and Israel were the only countries that skipped Ahmadinejad’s oratory.

Here was the leader of a country facing increasingly punishing economic sanctions, yet was welcomed to a hall filled with delegates of nearly all other UN members. Ahmadinejad must have been pleased with this reception so soon after he hosted the Non-Aligned Movement, which unanimously endorsed Iran’s nuclear project.

Abbas, though not the leader of a country, enjoys the same privilege to speak as heads of state at the UN General Assembly. In 2012, however, the question is who exactly does Abbas represent? Since the first and last Palestinian election in January 2006, Hamas has seized control of Gaza, efforts to forge Fatah-Hamas reconciliation remain unfulfilled, new elections have been repeatedly delayed, Arab states have failed to provide their promised financial aid, further weakening the Palestinian economy, and, recently, mass protests in the West Bank targeted Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. None of this was mentioned by Abbas in his UN speech.

“There is no Palestinian state without Gaza,” Fayyad said in August, after observing that the Palestinian communities of Gaza and the West Bank have grown apart. “With each day that passed without practical steps towards achieving reconciliation, Gaza is starting to become a distinct entity,” Fayyad poignantly observed. “Not a country nor a sovereign territory, only a distinct entity.”

Deep ideological differences between the competing Palestinian leaders, Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and Abbas in Ramallah, may be too wide to unite these two pieces of the putative Palestinian state. Perhaps serious challenges within Palestinian society are the biggest obstacles to furthering peace.

While Abbas is recognized internationally as the Palestinian leader, he still appears hesitant to exert the courage and vision that are the hallmarks of a statesman. Constant accolades in capitals in every region of the world will not deliver a Palestinian state. Only a decisive Abbas can do that. And his first decision, if he sincerely is committed to a twostate settlement, would be to return to direct negotiations with Israel.

Hesitation and posturing cost Abbas, and the Palestinians, an opportunity with Washington.

Two years ago, US President Barack Obama made a valiant effort to resume direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, hosting Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. Days later, addressing the UN General Assembly, Obama declared: “When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

Shortly thereafter, Abbas walked away again from the peace talks, and embarked on a new strategy to secure a state via the UN. Last year, the UN Security Council would not recognize a Palestinian state. Now, the Palestinians will seek a November vote to upgrade their UN delegation to non-member state status.

Before proceeding on this path, Abbas should listen again carefully to the speech Obama delivered to the UN last week. Significantly, he devoted only one paragraph to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The road is hard, but the destination is clear – a secure, Jewish state of Israel and an independent, prosperous Palestine,” said Obama.

“Understanding that such a peace must come through a just agreement between the parties, America will walk alongside all who are prepared to make that journey.”

US presidents, with differing styles, have shown determination to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and nurture peace agreements between Israel and her neighbors. Israel has long been ready to negotiate. Is the Palestinian leadership willing and able to make that journey?

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.

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