For the first time since taking office in 2009, US President Barack Obama failed to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his annual address to the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday.
Last year, as he stood at the same podium, Obama assured the international community that, as “bleak as the landscape” appeared to be in the Middle East, America would “never give up the pursuit of peace” between Israelis and Palestinians.
But during his 43 minute speech to the UNGA, the president was silent on the matter, awakening Israeli fears that his attention will be elsewhere in the last year and a half of his presidency.
True, these addresses are not a foolproof blueprint for future US foreign policy. Obama restored US-Cuba ties after 54 years, without ever uttering a word about the island country during any of his last six speeches to the UNGA.
He mentioned Iran only three times during his September 2014 speech, but then devoted a significant amount of his administration’s time in the subsequent 11 months to finalizing a deal with Tehran to curb its nuclear program. But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Obama’s UNGA speeches have more or less mirrored American efforts on the ground to finalize a deal.
• In 2009, a newly elected and optimistic Obama focused 10% of his UNGA speech – 536 words out of 5,149 – on the subject, as he announced his intention to push the peace process forward.
“The time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem,” Obama said then.
“And the goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security – a Jewish State of Israel, with true security for all Israelis, and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967 and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people,” he continued.
Israel was mentioned 18 times, more than any other nation, and the Palestinians were mentioned 15 times. In contrast, Obama referenced Iraq only four times, Iran twice, and Syria once. Out of all the global leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were the only ones he singled out by name.
The price of the conflict, Obama said as he waxed poetic, is “paid by the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life in the middle of the night.
It’s paid for by the Palestinian boy in Gaza who has no clean water and no country to call his own. These are all God’s children.
And after all the politics and all the posturing, this is about the right of every human being to live with dignity and security. That is a lesson embedded in the three great faiths that call one small slice of Earth the Holy Land.”
Just two months later, in an effort to help Obama revitalize the peace process, Netanyahu imposed a 10-month moratorium on all building starts in West Bank settlements. It was the most significant crack down on Jewish building in Judea and Samaria in the history of the settlement movement.
• A year later, in 2010, as the moratorium wound to a close and the peace process appeared to be sputtering back to life, Obama devoted even more time during his UNGA address on the pursuit of a two-state solution.
The 1073 words he issued on the matter, amounted to 23% of his 4,076 word speech.
Israel was mentioned 22 times, the Palestinians were spoken of 21 times, and again, Netanyahu and Abbas were the only global leaders referenced by name.
“This month, I am pleased that we have pursued direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington, Sharm e-Sheikh and Jerusalem,” Obama told the UNGA then.
“We all have a choice to make.
Each of us must choose the path of peace. Of course, that responsibility begins with the parties themselves, who must answer the call of history. Now is the time to build the trust – and provide the time – for substantial progress to be made. Now is the time for this opportunity to be seized, so that it does not slip away,” he said.
The president spoke strongly in support of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
“After 60 years in the community of nations, Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate.
“Israel is a sovereign state, and the historic homeland of the Jewish people. It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakable opposition of the United States. And efforts to threaten or kill Israelis will do nothing to help the Palestinian people. The slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance – it’s injustice,” said Obama.
He ended his 2010 UN GA address with a vision of hope, “This time, we should draw upon the teachings of tolerance that lie at the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem’s soil as sacred. This time we should reach for what’s best within ourselves. If we do, 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.”
• But the next year, Obama was back at the UN again, with no tangible progress in sight for the peace process, which had been frozen for a year. However, he was still hopeful that the deadlock would soon pass, so the conflict made up 18% of his 2011 UNGA speech, in which he devoted 797 of 4512 words to the topic.
“I know, particularly this week, that for many in this hall, there’s one issue that stands as a test for these principles and a test for American foreign policy, and that is the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
He mentioned the Israelis and the Palestinians 17 times each, as opposed to Syria which he mentioned nine times, Iraq four and Iran three.
This time around, however, he did not name the Israeli or Palestinian leaders as he called on both sides to resume negotiations.
“Each side has legitimate aspirations – and that’s part of what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in the other’s shoes; each side can see the world through the other’s eyes. That’s what we should be encouraging. That’s what we should be promoting,” he said.
“This body – founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and genocide, dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every single person – must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live lives of peace and security and dignity and opportunity,” Obama said.
• In September 2012, with the peace process in a deep freeze and his battle for reelection in full swing, Obama barely mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his UNGA address. He devoted only 86 words, a mere 2% of his 4,036 words speech to the peace process.
“Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on the prospect of peace. Let us leave behind those who thrive on conflict, those who reject the right of Israel to exist.
“The road is hard, but the destination is clear: a secure Jewish state of Israel and an independent, prosperous Palestine.
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,” Obama said.
• His interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spiked the following year, when his March 2013 visit to Israel was followed by the start of a nine-month US brokered peace process at the end of July. Although the president devoted 38% of his 2013 UNGA speech to Iran and Syria, he reserved 10% of it, some 534 words out of 5,582 for the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Similarly he mentioned Iran 26 times, Syria 20, Israelis 15 and Palestinian were spoken of 11 times.
“Earlier this year, in Jerusalem, I was inspired by young Israelis who stood up for the belief that peace was necessary, just, and possible,” said Obama.
He continued that “On the same trip, I had the opportunity to meet with young Palestinians in Ramallah whose ambition and incredible potential are matched by the pain they feel in having no firm place in the community of nations,” Obama said.
“The time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace. Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks.
President Abbas has put aside efforts to short-cut the pursuit of peace and come to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Netanyahu has released Palestinian prisoners and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state. Current talks are focused on final status issues of borders and security, refugees and Jerusalem.
“So let’s emerge from the familiar corners of blame and prejudice. Let’s support Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are prepared to walk the difficult road to peace,” said Obama.
• A year later, however, after the nine month peace process ended in April 2014 with no tangible results, Obama made scant mention of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict in his 2014 UNGA speech, in which he devoted 176 words out of 4,288 to the topic. Israelis were mentioned only four times and the Palestinians were spoken of three times.
Now that the peace process is in a deep freeze, the need for a resolution to the conflict will be raised at the UNGA this week by Netanyahu and Abbas. But although US Secretary of State John Kerry plans to meet with Netanyahu and the Quartet intends to explore reviving the talks, Israelis and Palestinians were not even mentioned in the Obama speech, which dealt with Syria, Iran, Russia and ISIS.
Israelis often worry about the disproportionate way the international community focuses on its conflict with the Palestinians, particularly at a time when hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in neighboring Syria.
But now it seems that the only thing worse than too much attention is no attention at all.