Reporter's Notebook: The sound of one hand clapping

“So as Israel’s prime minister, I didn’t come here to win applause,” says PM Netanyahu at General Assembly. “I came here to speak the truth.”

General Assembly (photo credit: REUTERS)
General Assembly
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 spoken word.
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 words.
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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.
The next speaker – Abbas – was clearly the main event of the day, if not the entire week.
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 Armenian.
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 them.
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 disaster.
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.
All this and more, he said, rendered the international body a “theater of the absurd.”
As applause rang loudly from Israel supporters in the gallery, the collective delegate response came closer to a perfunctory golf clap.

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.