Analysis: UN General Assembly could see real Mideast breakthroughs

US is looking at the prospect of diplomatic advances on Israel-Palestinian talks, Iran and Syria.

Netanyahu UN Sept 2011 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Netanyahu UN Sept 2011 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
NEW YORK – Statesmen descend once again on UN headquarters in New York this week, but the 68th General Assembly might prove different than sessions in the recent past.
After several years of speechifying, sanctioning and pre-negotiating, the United States faces the prospect of real diplomatic breakthroughs on three of the Middle East’s most daunting crises.
Syria’s stunning declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles and its vow to destroy them, in a deal brokered by Russia to void off US military strikes against the Syrian regime, has reminded Washington of the power of the stick: Even accidentally, the mere threat of military force can disrupt diplomatic stasis, delivering a possible negotiated end to a decades-old problem.
Perhaps so can sanctions, as the Iranian regime signals serious interest in an interim agreement on its nuclear program that will ease economic constraints imposed by the West on their country’s key financial sectors.
And as the crisis over Syria abated, the State Department reminded journalists that Secretary of State John Kerry still considers a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians one of his top priorities. So does US President Barack Obama, who will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday to discuss ongoing direct peace talks.
The coming week is key for all three crises here in New York, making this year’s General Assembly uniquely important. Diplomacy is having its moment in the spotlight, properly highlighted at the UN, a body that rarely proves its mission true that peace can be achieved through dialogue.
Unlike in the past, speeches presented by the presidents of the United States, Iran and the Palestinian Authority will not be aimed primarily at domestic audiences.
They will now be aimed at each other, in a deliberate effort to send messages to adversarial governments of their willingness to negotiate and settle.
The Security Council will face a true test as both Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly challenge its effectiveness after the gassing of over 1,400 civilians in a Damascus suburb in August went unanswered, and effectively ignored, without even a resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons passing through the paralyzed body.
Calls for true reform will likely fall on deaf Russian ears, but a resolution on Syria might finally make its way through the council holding Syrian President Bashar Assad responsible for the destruction of his chemical arms.
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, will have his first chance to show the US, Israel and the rest of the international community that Iran intends to recognize the Holocaust, the right of Jews to exist in the region without threat of mass attack, and international laws governing the use and limitations of nuclear power. That opportunity cannot go unmissed, with stakes truly high for him both at home and abroad: Conservatives in Iranian politics have been sidelined to give the relative moderate president a chance, and US and Israeli officials have clarified that, after the Syrian crisis, their patience with Iran’s nuclear program is wearing thin as time runs out on alternative options to talks.
Most difficult will be the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, which, compared to the crises posed by Iran and Syria, feels less pressing and has fewer parties directly invested in a swift solution. Nevertheless, this week will be a rare opportunity for the leaders of both peoples to choose words of conciliation over words of aggression; overtures with heft, instead of empty gestures. Whether the Palestinians choose to use this General Assembly to further entrench the conflict with its natural UN allies, or allow the peace process to breathe, will be a major test of its leadership and the faith it has in the talks that are still under way.
Speechifying is guaranteed and outcomes are certainly not. But at this UN gathering, given the stakes and the conditions created by true pressures, the words will finally matter.