Win, lose, or draw? The UN showdown

It seems that Israel is leading on points in the current round, but more rounds are still to come.

By JOSEF OLMERT
September 27, 2011 00:00
4 minute read.
PA President Abbas gives letter to Ban Ki-moon

PA President Abbas gives letter to Ban Ki-moon 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Thayer)

 
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The debate over full Palestinian membership in the UN is not over yet, but it is not too early to issue an interim report card, and it seems that what was billed as a diplomatic OK Corral showdown is just another chapter in a long saga whose end is still not in sight.

Diplomatically, the Israelis can register a success. The Israeli press and opposition politicians went out of their way to describe the calamity awaiting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “Tsunami” and “apocalypse now” were some of the expressions used, but that simply did not happen. Netanyahu and his foreign minister, the fiery Avigdor Lieberman, made it clear they had no problems with President Obama’s speech, which included a reference to the 1967 lines. Really? Well, it’s all about expectations, and the Israelis being told to expect a tornado got a blessed rain, so no wonder that Netanyahu and his supporters celebrated a victory.

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I doubt if in second or third reading of the speech they’ll have the same words of praise for the president. If they do, the president can claim his own victory. To understand this, it is necessary to go back to his speech from some months before, and the Israeli reactions then to the mentioning of these problematic 4 digits: 1967.

The Israelis can also be encouraged by the decision of Nigeria to abstain in the Security Council. Nigeria being half Muslim and a member of OPEC was supposed to be firmly in the Palestinian column. The Palestinian side is the one that signals frustration with the proceedings in New York, and they know why, as the attempt to isolate Israel seems to be unravel. The Palestinian leadership made some miscalculations in its preparations for the big event in New York. The Arab Middle East is far from being engulfed with fervor watching the debate in New York. To be sure, there are many thousands of Arabs in the streets of Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, but their agenda is not the Palestine problem. It is their freedoms and bread and butter which are at stake.

THE PALESTINIANS may have to understand, grudgingly, that the Arab Spring is not so conducive to their struggle as they initially thought. Propaganda notwithstanding, the truth is that the Arab masses are preoccupied primarily with their own predicament, not that of the Palestinians. There is no newlyfound antagonism to Israel, far from it, but in terms of priorities, this conflict is not at the top of the list for so many Arabs.

Even the demonstrations in the West Bank are significantly smaller than anticipated, and one is left to hope that despite the inflammation, they will not deteriorate into violence and bloodshed.

In addition, the Palestinian leadership is weakened by Hamas’s position.

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The internal Palestinian reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas left the former with the bad smell, but no real advantage. Hamas cannot be clearer in its opposition to the PA bid, and Abbas really needs to clarify whether he talks for all the Palestinian people he claims to be the leader of.

This is not just a political problem for the PA, it’s also a PR one. Ahead of the show in New York, both sides sent their heavy PR guns to the arena. The Israelis have their former UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, a polished speaker, and the PA called the brilliant Hanan Ashrawi, who for some years was in relative obscurity.

But even the veteran Ashrawi cannot whitewash the impact of some Palestinian messages that put their position in a context which is not convenient to them.

Take for example, Abbas’ repeated announcement that he would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. An amazing position when held by a leader who demands recognition of his own people’s right for self-determination.

Then there was a press conference in Ramallah in which Nabil Sha’ath, one of Abbas’ closest confidants, explained at length Palestinian disappointment with the US position. Behind the podium there was a map of Palestine. Something was missing there – the State of Israel.

A coincidence? I, for one, do not think so. And where is Ashrawi explaining this? Polls taken in the US indicate very clearly that the majority of Americans are not really interested in the New York drama. The same polls show that by wide margin American public opinion continues to favor Israel. The New York story has not become center stage in Europe either, where support for the Palestinians is significantly greater than in the US.

The financial woes and the debt crisis are a much bigger story there.

So on balance, it seems that Israel is leading on points in the current round. But then, a dose of reality is in order here. The Middle East can change very quickly. No celebrations by Netanyahu and his government can change the fact that many more rounds are coming down the line, so it may be that a visionary policy from them will bring Israel many more points, not just PR but also diplomatic.

There still is time to do that.

The writer is an Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. He served as the director of the Government Press Office and was an advisor to several prime ministers. This article was first published on The Huffington Post and reprinted with permission.

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