Analysis: Putting Obama' s 31 words on Israel-Palestinians in perspective

There is much concern about what the president will do during this interregnum; Will he put forward a UN Security Council resolution that will upend all previous UN resolutions?

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu meet on sidelines of UN General Assembly in New York (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu meet on sidelines of UN General Assembly in New York
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
US President Barack Obama on Tuesday delivered his final address as president to the United Nations General Assembly.
The speech – punctuated by some of Obama’s rhetorical flourishes – was a sweeping review of the globe by a man who has been at the center of the world’s drama over the last eight years, and is just about to exit stage left. It took about 48 minutes to deliver, included some of his signature oratorical flourishes, and contained some 5,600 words.
Thirty-one of those words dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thirty- one.
Compare that to previous addresses Obama gave to the UN.
In September 2009, flush in the belief that he possessed the formula to push through dramatic change in the Middle East, Obama devoted 521 words to this conflict. A year later, in 2010, he devoted nearly 1,100 words – or more than a fourth of his entire speech – to the Israeli- Palestinian situation.
This was after the end of the 10-month Israeli settlement freeze, and when he had a special envoy – George Mitchell – busy shuttling back and forth. It was also before the “Arab Spring,” when many around the world believed – truly believed – that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the root and core of all Middle East instability.
In 2011, the year of the upheavals in the Arab world, he devoted 846 words to the subject. But from that year onward there has been a drastic decline in how much time he gave the subject in his annual UN speech, corresponding to a decline in how the diplomatic process was faring and how much time and political energy he was willing to expend on the issue.
In 2012 the issues took up 86 words in his speech, in 2013 – in the midst of the negotiations being led by his Secretary of State John Kerry – it went back up to 505, but it fell again in 2014 to 192 words, the year the negotiations failed.
The subject did not merit any mention at all in 2015 – an address that followed the Iran nuclear deal.
And on Tuesday it did reappear – but only for one brief sentence.
And that single sentence reflected this administration’s penchant for always looking for complete balance and symmetry in this conflict: It was divided into two clauses, one that dealt with the Palestinians, and one with the Israelis.
“And surely, Israelis and Palestinians will be better off if Palestinians reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel, but Israel recognizes that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land,” the president said. And that was it.
Astoundingly, some in Israel took this sentence as a sign of problems they predicted would emerge at Wednesday’s meeting between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, and of huge problems that lie in store for Israel after the US elections on November 8, and before the new president is sworn in on January 20.
There is much concern about what the president will do during this interregnum. Will he put forward a UN Security Council resolution that will upend all previous UN resolutions? Or, perhaps, will he lay down parameters damaging to Israel of how he thinks the conflict should be resolved? Reflecting a penchant in this country to play up the negative, the Israeli media, for the most part, highlighted the second part of Obama’s sentence – the part about Israel not being able to permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land – while downplaying the first part: that the Palestinians must reject incitement and recognize Israel’s legitimacy.
As a result, what he said about Israel was in bold headlines in the morning papers, while his comments about the Palestinians did not even make the sub-headline.
In this telling, Obama holds Israel primarily responsible for the impasse, and will settle the score when there is no more political price to pay: i.e. after the elections.
But that narrative does not line up with the reality. Obama’s sentence on Tuesday was telling in its symmetry, apportioning responsibility equally to both sides.
That penchant to play up Obama’s pounding on Israel, while underreporting or ignoring his frustration with the Palestinians, has plagued reporting of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship – and of Obama’s position toward Israel – from the very beginning. This has created a perception that the president is just waiting for a chance to pounce on Israel.
Yet Tuesday’s brief message was not a wallop delivered solely to Israel, but rather a rap on the knuckles to both Jerusalem and Ramallah: The Palestinians incite and don’t recognize Israel’s legitimacy, and Israel occupies and settles.
Although his failure to mention Palestinian violence – referring only to incitement – was befuddling, this was a yellow card flashed to both sides.
We in Israel, who always fear the worst from this president with this prime minister, only see the yellow card flashed in our direction.
But the Palestinians received one as well – in fact it even came first in the sentence order.
But we don’t see it, so convinced are we that Obama is just waiting for the right moment to lower the boom on Netanyahu. Maybe he is, but the 31-words he inserted into his speech on Tuesday – as well as the cordial nature of the photo opportunity before his meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday – gave no indication that this was his intention.