After many months of actively diminishing the credibility and stature of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas – much to the political benefit of the rejectionst Hamas movement – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will now be amplifying and validating Abbas’ case against Israel.
How do I know this? Because Netanyahu has announced that in his speech Monday to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) “will refute all of the lies being directed at us…” This is Israel playing defense, when it doesn’t have to.
Palestinians don’t have an independent state, regardless of who is at fault, so Abbas has to push the Palestinian issue at every opportunity. But Israel is a sovereign state, a scientific and economic powerhouse, a major non-NATO U.S. ally. Israel need not define itself by the Palestinian issue or the Iranian threat, yet its Prime Minister does just that, year after year. But he still expects the UN to see Israel as greater than the sum of its conflicts.
By the time Hamas commenced firing rockets against Israeli cities, Netanyahu had no choice but to retaliate with air strikes and limited ground operations, engaging in costly and unseemly – though justified – military aggression.
Netanyahu was forced to take the Hamas bait over the summer, but he need not take Abbas’ bait today. In his UNGA speech, the Prime Minister does have the luxury of choosing. Israel’s security is not at stake. Netanyahu could forgo a tit-for-tat response to Abbas, and instead present a comprehensive vision for peace with the Palestinians.
Trying to discredit Abbas before an audience of world leaders will prove both unsuccessful and unnecessary. Outside of Israel and the pro-Netanyahu wing of American politics, the world pretty much believes Abbas is the most conciliatory Palestinian leader, past, present, or future – there’s no way to convince the unconvinced that Abbas seeks Israel’s destruction rather than peace.
Thanks to Netanyahu’s spirited – and likely, condescending – response, anyone who missed or discounted Abbas’ predictable and incendiary remarks last week will now pay closer attention to the genocide allegations. This includes the majority of Western and Mideast governments that largely gave Israel a wide berth to neutralize the threat from Gaza. What Abbas delivered last week as rhetorical consolation, Netanyahu will now make impactful with an active rebuttal, before world leaders. If he cares so much about what Abbas says, then maybe they will, too.
If Netanyahu’s counterparts can’t be convinced that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is “a wolf in sheep’ clothing” or that negotiating with Iran was “a historic mistake”, then neither will they be persuaded that Abbas is a charlatan who falsely accuses Israel. What they may come away with, however, is a stronger sense that Israel’s current government prefers propaganda response over substantive steps toward a two-state solution, or statecraft.
Many Israelis still dust off the Cold War mantra, that the UN doesn’t matter and its member states will always see Israel as a pariah. But Israel’s diplomats know better, and so does Netanyahu – after all, he troops to New York each year. Israel is increasingly accepted by the community of nations, despite the protracted Palestinian issue. And Israeli pressure helped enable the stiff sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table.
If Israel offers a message of hope and justice, then why not use the once-a-year global message to express just such aspirations and call to action – on medical and scientific collaboration, on building sustainable infrastructure, on achieving the Millennium Development Goals, on peaceful coexistence. But no.
Netanyahu uses his annual UNGA speech less to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to regional security or global progress, than to pull the heartstrings of – and give satisfaction to – the Israelis whose support he needs to stay in power, and the U.S. Republicans he thinks keep America from holding him to account. He lectures the rest of the world, not to convince it, but to make his core constituency feel righteous and isolated – even at the expense of trivializing Israel’s recent popularity. In that sense, his speech will easily hit home.