Once a focus of the world’s concern, at this year’s United Nation’s general assembly opening session the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, at best, an afterthought. Neither US president Barack Obama nor Russian president Vladimir Putin even mentioned the issue in their speeches. Worse still was how the question of Palestine was mangled and abused in speeches delivered by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
Mr Netanyahu, forever the showman, put on a bizarre performance in which he touched only briefly on the conflict in his backyard. Eighty per cent of his prepared remarks were devoted to denouncing and demeaning the UN for its support of the Iran deal, including an eerie 45 seconds in which he silently stared at the assembly scolding them for their silence in the face of Iran’s threats against Israel. He then launched into an embarrassingly boastful discourse in which he claimed that Israel was the “innovation nation” that had invented or “perfected” pretty much everything from smartphones to the cherry tomato.
Only at the end of his speech did Mr Netanyahu turn to the Palestinian issue by disingenuously announcing that he was “prepared to immediately resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any preconditions whatsoever”. Two sentences later, however, Mr Netanyahu imposed his first two conditions by stating that his commitment to a two-state solution meant “a demilitarised Palestinian state [that] recognises the Jewish state”.
Like Mr Netanyahu, PA president Abbas remarks were predictable. Mr Abbas’s speech was a long, sad litany of woes culminating in empty threats. He reiterated the Palestinian demand for their just rights and then listed all of the ways that Israel has impeded the realisation of those rights.
Mr Abbas had promised a bombshell announcement, but it was delivered in such tortured language that observers listening carefully to the PA president’s words were left wondering what he was really saying: “We declare that as long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreement signed with us ... we will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements ... while Israel continuously violates them.”
Was he, in fact, dissolving the Palestinian Authority and ending security cooperation with Israel? Was he endorsing a nationwide movement of non-violent resistance demanding an end to the decades-long occupation? Or was he making just another hollow threat?
The US response was also tragically predictable, lamely calling on all parties to take no steps that would endanger an eventual two-state solution – as if oblivious to the realities that are making that very outcome impossible: 570,000 Israeli settlers living across the Green Line, an obscene wall snaking in and out of the West Bank that chews up almost 10 per cent of the Palestinian territory, provocative Jewish-only housing projects being established in East Jerusalem and Hebron in a continuing effort to change the character of both cities, and now a dangerous effort to change the status quo at Al Aqsa mosque compound.
Arrogant and dishonest bullying from the Israeli side, weak and visionless whining from the Palestinians, and timidity and neglect from the US – that was how the Israeli-Palestinian issue played out at the UN. And it was how Oslo and its peace process were unceremoniously buried.
This was not the way it was supposed to be. I was on the White House lawn together with hundreds of other Arab Americans and American Jews as we watched PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin sign the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993.
The accords were flawed, to be sure. The parties had gone as far as they could in an effort to find agreement, but in doing so they left some terms vague and subject to divergent interpretations. Further progress, therefore, would require a firm balancing hand. Nevertheless, what was clear was that Israel and the PLO had recognised each other’s national rights and agreed to negotiate an end to their decades-old conflict. It was understood that the way forward would not be easy. But there was optimism that there was, at last, a beginning.
The intervening years were not kind to the Oslo process. The US failed to recognise that the Israelis and Palestinians would need external support and pressure to complete the effort. Instead of a balanced approach, Israel got the support and Palestinians got the pressure.
Not only was little progress made in the critical first few years, but Israeli settlements increased, Palestinians became poorer, more unemployed and less free to move about. In the end, they lost confidence in the peace process. Efforts to sabotage Oslo made by the Israeli right-wing and the Newt Gingrich-led Congress were matched by a series of hideous terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas, who also sought to destroy Oslo.
After Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and Hamas stepped up its campaign of terror, Israelis elected Benjamin Netanyahu, who campaigned on a platform of ending the Oslo Accords. By placing new hurdles in the way of the process while dramatically expanding settlement construction, Mr Netanyahu did his best to deliver on his promise.
During all this time, pathologies played out on all sides. Israeli politics continued to become more hardline and aggressive, seeking to establish their control. Palestinians, divided and lacking visionary leadership, floundered.
Oslo has been dying for years. What happened this week at the UN was the final burial rite. Unless there is a dramatic challenge to the status quo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to deteriorate with no good end in sight.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa