Disputes between Israelis and Palestinians have been debated at UN headquarters for the past seven decades. This year’s General Assembly was no exception, with leaders offering their views on the enduring crisis.
The 2020 gathering, an online event due to the Covid-19 pandemic, came on the heels of a deal to establish ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain — the first Arab states to make the move in a quarter-century.
United States President Donald Trump, his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and other statesmen lauded the Abraham Accord, as the deal is known.
For Mr Trump, the accord was a big selling point in his UN speech. The deal, brokered by the US and inked on the White House lawn earlier this month, was a “landmark breakthrough” after “decades of no progress” in Israeli-Palestinian talks.
It heralded the “dawn of the new Middle East,” Mr Trump said on Tuesday.
In his pre-recorded address, Mr Macron on Tuesday said he welcomed the “legitimate recognition” of Israel by the two Gulf states, which he called a “pledge of hope for the future”.
Mr Macron described a tough “path back to decisive negotiations” for Palestinians, who seek an independent state based on borders before a 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem.
European Council President Charles Michel said “rapprochement” would boost regional “peace and stability”. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the “historic diplomatic achievement” could flip the script on future Middle East peace talks.
We want “more realism to be introduced into the way this issue is perceived within the UN,” Mr Babis said on Friday.
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced support for the deal, saying in an opinion article on Wednesday that the “significant political development” could help “overcome decades of estrangement and mistrust”.
Bahrain’s King Hamad called the deal a “courageous” bid to boost peace talks.
During his virtual address to the UN General Assembly, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, affirmed the UAE’s “total rejection of the annexation of Palestinian territory.”
“With the signing of a historic peace accord with Israel supported by American efforts, my country was able to freeze the annexation decision and open broad prospects to achieve a comprehensive peace,” Sheikh Abdullah said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu conveyed similar optimism towards the agreements during his address, expressing his belief that they “will bring our peoples the blessings of peace and the enormous benefits that come with more trade, more investment, more commerce, transportation, tourism, increased cooperation in so many other areas.
“I also have no doubt that more Arab and Muslim countries will be joining the circle of peace, soon, very soon,” he added.
Behind the scenes, Trump administration officials were pushing for more Arab states to follow suit, said UN envoy Kelly Craft. Speaking with Al Arabiya on Wednesday, she said “more countries” would join the two Gulf states, without naming them.
Warming ties were on display in New York. Israel’s UN ambassador Gilad Erdan met his UAE counterpart Lana Nusseibeh for the first time on Wednesday. They agreed to work together at the UN to promote women’s rights and tackle online extremism.
Several Middle Eastern leaders addressed the UN without mentioning the accord. Others called on the need to implement the Saudi-proposed Arab Peace Initiative from the early 2000s, which offered Israel normalised ties only after it had withdrawn from Palestinian land.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday said there had to be a respect for “terms of reference of a comprehensive, lasting and just solution”. He called for a UN-led international meet on Middle East peace early next year to deliver on Palestinian hopes.
Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, rebuffed criticism, saying the accord would strengthen the Emirati role in promoting a two-state solution and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“It will contribute to our joint efforts to establish an independent Palestinian state,” Dr Gargash said in an online session of the Asia Society, a New York-based think tank, on Thursday.
Officials in the UAE note that the accord stopped Israel’s planned annexation of occupied Palestinian land, and did not represent a departure from support for the creation of a future, independent Palestinian state.
The UN assembly in normal years draws some 10,000 people from around the world. Yet this year it was attended only by representatives already based in New York. But that was unthinkable at a time when countries imposed strict entrance requirements to halt the spread of Covid-19, which has claimed more than 1 million lives.