Illustration by Eran Wolkowski courtesy of Haaretz
As is the usual practice at this time of year, the world’s focus turned last week to the hallowed halls of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The events there have, by now, become an annual ritual. Eyes became trained upon Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his travelling circus rolled into New York City. Everybody was awaiting his next insult directed at Israel and other western countries. He did not disappoint. He did the rounds of the TV talk shows who were falling over themselves to get him on their stages. He poked his finger in the eye of his American hosts and continuously threatened Israel’s existence and place in the community of nations. US President Barack Obama made his speech at the General Assembly, and left town as soon as he possibly could. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pleaded for the establishment of a Palestinian independent state, without addressing any of the main sticking points that are preventing him from achieving this objective. Prime Minister Netanyahu put on his usual show, defending the rights of the Jewish nation to exist in peace and security (for his speech to the UN click here). All of these actions have become fairly well-rehearsed over the past few years. This year, however, there were some subtle differences.
The assessment of one of the Israeli newspapers was spot-on when it wrote that the international leaders seemed to be talking straight past each other, and aiming their addresses at people who were a long way from the General Assembly halls. The newspaper decided that Obama aimed his address at his Jewish voters in Florida, who he hopes will help to swing the vote to re-elect him for a further presidential term in November. They thought that Abbas was aiming his speech at Hamas leaders who, he hopes, will find a way to further Palestinian unity and implement the agreement that was signed some time ago. It was decided that Netanyahu aimed his speech at the central committee of his ruling Likud party in his attempt to convince them that he is not compromising his red lines on Iran’s nuclear weapons, nor his position regarding conditions under which he would reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Despite the world leaders being in close proximity to one another, nobody seemed to be talking to each other.
Another newspaper described the Netanyahu and Abbas speeches as “one talking about green lines and the other talking about red lines”. The green lines refer to the borders originally drawn up for the State of Israel, and in effect until the Six Day War in 1967. In his speech to the UN, Abbas again complained that the Israeli settlements are the main obstacle to peace. With the support of many in the international community, Abbas believes that a future Palestinian state should be established on the borders of the “green line”. Netanyahu is firmly opposed to returning to the green line, and has made this clear on a number of occasions. In an attempt to bring the international community around to his way of thinking, his government continues to act against settlers trying to establish new outposts in the West Bank, in places which are not properly authorised and legal. The steps that Netanyahu has taken against these new and illegal settlements have gained the wrath of many in his Likud party.
The red lines refer to the fact that Netanyahu feels that Iran is being allowed to behave with a free hand while the international community waits for the sanctions to take effect. He is insistent that red lines should be drawn, which would create limits on Iran’s behaviour. The clear implication is that the international community should be prepared to draw these red lines, and should also be prepared to take military action against Iran in the event that it transgresses the red lines. At the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Netanyahu made his point about red lines on Iran very explicitly using a prop showing a neatly-drawn nuclear bomb (in the shape of a hand grenade). On this sketch, he used a red marker to add where he thought the red line should be drawn.
There can be no clearer indication that the these leaders are on completely different pages, and thinking about completely different things. There appears to be no common purpose or urgency about what needs to be achieved next, in order to bring about the much sought-after peace in the Middle East. Abbas is enjoying a period of stability within his West Bank stronghold. A routine of some sort has been established for daily life within his constituency. Few attacks on Israel have been perpetrated by Palestinians, and this has resulted in far less intervention by Israeli troops in Palestinian society. Quality of life has been improved by the relative stability. Abbas has greater support of his people (as evidenced by the lack of any real shows of dissatisfaction), and he has no interest at the moment to be put under pressure to call an election. Hamas is weakened by its leadership struggle for somebody to replace the outgoing Khaled Meshal, and this has substantially reduced the tension between Abbas and his Hamas rivals. It seems as though Abbas has little intention or reason to upset this situation.
Netanyahu’s attention and focus is almost entirely devoted to Iran’s nuclear program, when he is not stealing time for domestic matters. Between Iran and working on his campaign for elections currently scheduled for 2013, Netanyahu seems to have little time or inclination to deal with Palestinian matters. The same is true for President Obama, who has not shown any inclination to spend much time on the Middle East conundrum in his four years in office to date. Although all the speeches referred to work that needs to be done on the “peace process”, actions speak louder than words. The actions indicate that all three leaders are not unhappy with the status quo, and that none of them are poised to do anything dramatic to change it. This perhaps explains the lack of coordination in the various speeches. It almost appears as if the lack of coordination was coordinated!
The Ahmadinejad show at the UN is extremely unfortunate. It seems as though the world has come to accept that this is the way that things are, and is prepared to tolerate his bad behaviour. It is OK for him to bash Israel from the UN podium (and anywhere else), despite prior warnings by the UN and the USA for him to tone down his rhetoric. The USA and Canada were the only two countries to walk out of the General Assembly when he rose to speak. All of this bodes extremely badly for the world’s response to Iran’s nuclear weapons. Will this be taken for granted as well? If so, it is entirely appropriate for Bibi to be focusing on red lines, even if the rest of the world prefers him to concentrate on green lines.