September 19, 2011

The Israeli UN speech that can't

At the United Nations, Israel seems destined to continue squandering its starring role on the global stage, only to play to the hometown audience. Last time around, it was Holocaust heartstrings, and this week it will be Palestinian politics. And beyond squandering, it's actually undermining Israel's diplomatic and political interests. 


Two years ago, when Prime Minister Netanyahu last represented Israel at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, he used his speech to defend the historical record of the Holocaust in the face of denials by the Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Ironically, Ahmadinejad omitted that very libel from his own UNGA remarks, so the only one that week to highlight doubts about the Holocaust was the Prime Minister of Israel. 

This whole exercise came four years AFTER the UN had finally begun recognizing and institutionalizing the scale, lessons and implications of the Holocaust, and the UNGA had already adopted a resolution condemning denial of the Holocaust -- with Iran implicitly the target. And in a perverse twist, just weeks earlier, Netanyahu's political allies in Israel and the United States had blasted President Obama for lecturing the Muslim world about the intimate connection between the Holocaust and the founding of the Jewish State, as though Obama were reducing Israel to just a Holocaust metaphor. Then the same critics turned around and praised Netanyahu for essentially doing the same thing.

To a world that had recently committed itself to the inadmissibility of Holocaust denial, Netanyahu validated the naysayers by literally waving documentary evidence in their faces. Israelis loved it, but it was neither relevant nor timely. 


This week, Netanyahu returns in person, after letting his Foreign Minister address the UNGA last year on the merits of population transfer. What will the Prime Minister stress? The injustice of recognizing a new Palestinian state at this time.

Leaving aside whether it is unjust and/or unwise for the Palestinians, Israel is itself a sovereign country, with much more to offer the world than a stand against Palestinian self-determination. So is this really what the Prime Minister wants to put front and center as Israel's annual message to the assembled world leaders? Apparently so.

One might think Israel can use the opportunity to warn against instability and war-mongering by Egypt, Syria, Iran and Turkey, each of which has military capacity to kill many thousands of Israelis. Or this could be the time to be positive and cast a vision of true globalization, peace and reconciliation that might shame the European and Latin American nations. But instead, Israel will be known this year for a spirited defense against the Palestinians -- no more, and no less. The Arab League and the Palestinians were hoping to be center stage this fall at the UN, and how better than for the Prime Minister of Israel (no less) to fly over and validate their importance with a dedicated speech? 

Even the major American Jewish organizations have realized it's counter-productive to hold a rally across from the UN to protest the Palestinian bid or statehood. What can explain Netanyahu's seeming shortfall in Israeli communication strategy? Maybe it's a matter of personal style, and target audience.

As a Jewish campus activist many moons ago, I was spellbound by the young Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's energetic and unapologetic UN envoy. He lashed out against terrorist regimes and enemies of Israel and of human rights, and he eloquently called hypocritical Western governments to account. But who was really impacted by this? People like myself, mostly in Israel and the United States. For better or worse (and it WAS the 1980s), Israel added few friends among the diplomatic corps or within the UN Secretariat during Netanyahu's high-profile tenure. 

This week will be no different. Rather than leaving the Palestinians' unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) as the fait accompli that it is, and focusing on substantive implications of international developments, Netanyahu will make Jews and Israelis -- and our beloved allies among the Christians -- feel wronged and righteous. We will extol his beautiful and historic speech in High Holiday sermons and popularity ratings back in Israel will spike. 

Most serious speechmakers incorporate a target audience into various lines or sections of their speeches. At the UN, often a particular government or head of state is waiting to hear a specific reference in a counterpart's speech that will indicate a new opportunity or way forward. At this late stage, and on the same day as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas makes his own case for statehood, what government could possibly be waiting to hear what Netanyahu thinks about Palestinian self-determination? Unless he means to project an image of desperation...

Yes, we Jews will be so proud. But Israel will be no safer. And the tragedy is that, were he to deliver an equally uncompromising and even braver speech, directed to the rest of the world (or heck, if he just stays home), Israel might just gain more than it will lose. But it's easier to curse the darkness -- after all, he's done it before.

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