Barak Ravid
Arab News (Opinion)
September 25, 2011 - 12:00am

Reactions to Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu’s addresses to the UN are clear illustrations of Palestine president’s ascent to political rock star status and Israeli prime minister’s increasing international isolation.

Half an hour before Abbas went up to the podium at the UN General Assembly, Salva Kiir, president of the world’s youngest country, South Sudan, was giving his own speech. As he went on, a slow buzz began to spread throughout the hall.

World leaders, foreign ministers and ambassadors came in one after the other and filled the empty spots in the auditorium. The seats reserved for guests and journalists were also quickly taken. When Kiir finished his speech, everyone expected Abbas to speak next, but due to a change in the schedule, the president of Armenia ascended the stage. The large crowd of people impatiently anticipating the day’s main event heaved a communal grunt of dissatisfaction over the unexpected warm-up show.

Had a stranger stumbled into the General Assembly on Friday, they might have thought Lady Gaga – or at least Madonna – was about to perform, and not the somber Abbas. Dozens of people who couldn’t find a seat stood along the walls of the hall, while others sat down on the stairs. When Abbas’ name was announced, the crowd rose to its feet and received him with applause befitting nothing less than a rock star.

Abbas’ speech was unrelenting. A few of the things he said would even make Yossi Beilin or Shimon Peres cringe. When he talked about Palestine as a land holy to several religions, he mentioned Muslims and Christians, but failed to mention the Jews. He spoke of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and said that the IDF and settlers abuse farmers and sick people on their way to the hospital.

Yet all of this did not prevent the majority of the representatives in the hall to applaud Abbas, and even give him a standing ovation when he waved a copy of the letter he submitted earlier to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting membership to the UN. When Abbas yelled over the podium, “enough, enough, enough,” the representatives of the world’s nations believed him. Israel’s handling of the Palestinian bid reached an especially embarrassing peak during Abbas’ speech.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who entered the hall a few minutes before the speech began, decided once again to use an international diplomatic event for a little bit of internal politics. When the Palestinian president began speaking, Lieberman stood up and left the room, as if Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself was standing on stage. He later explained that he left in protest of Abbas’ “campaign” against Israel. Minister Yuli Edelstein left two minutes after him. Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor followed the two, leaving his deputy behind.

Netanyahu came to New York in a combative mood. A series of articles in the American press, that held him responsible for the deadlock in the peace process, disturbed him deeply. He was angry over what he coined “the New York discourse.”

The Israeli press became the “little devil”, in his eyes. Netanyahu even mentioned this in his speech, when he said “better a bad press than a good eulogy, and better still would be a fair press whose sense of history extends beyond breakfast, and which recognizes Israel’s legitimate security concerns.”

The criticism Netanyahu received from former President Bill Clinton that evening made Netanyahu so mad that he asked his aides to request that the White House issue a statement distancing itself from Clinton’s statements.

When Netanyahu got up on stage there were already empty pockets in the hall. Many representatives, especially those from Arab countries, left after Abbas’ speech. The silence in the hall was also noticeable. The applause that interrupted Abbas’ speech several times was not extended to Netanyahu; the only applause he received was from his advisers and a small group of Jewish activists.

Netanyahu came to the UN to defend himself from international criticism of his government’s policies, and of him. His speech was aggressive and combative, but it was aimed more at Israeli public opinion than at those sitting in the General Assembly. Netanyahu focused on the basic fears and anxieties of every Israeli — from the Warsaw Ghetto to Hamas and Hezbollah rockets to the Iranian nuclear program.

Like Muammar Qaddafi, who stood at that podium a year earlier and called for the dismantling of the UN, Netanyahu also launched an attack on the organization that contributed significantly to the creation of the State of Israel. “A theater of the absurd” and “a house of lies and of darkness” were only some of the compliments Netanyahu bestowed upon the UN institutions.

Instead of a new political message or a groundbreaking initiative that would try to restart the peace process and put an end to Israeli’s diplomatic troubles, Netanyahu chose to give the audience a lesson in the Jewish people’s history, from King Hezekiah to the pogroms to the present.

Netanyahu believes that there is nothing he can do to change the narrative that paints him as the one saying no to peace and the Palestinians as the side who desires it. Therefore, in his mind, “we must tell the truth until the world understands.” Some of his sentiments are justified. Even extremely justified. But Netanyahu is not asking himself how he got to a situation where no one in the world believes a word he says in the first place.

Although the Palestinian state was not created at the UN over the weekend, this was without a doubt a historic event. The cold welcome Netanyahu received stood in stark contrast with the massive support Abbas received from the international community. If anyone still had any doubts – this is what a political tsunami looks like, and this is what international isolation feels like.

— Barak Ravid is the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz newspaper. He joined Haaretz in April 2007, covering the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense, dealing with issues such as US-Israeli relations, EU-Israeli relations and the peace process. This article first appeared in Haaretz.


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