NEW YORK — The hour of peace for both peoples may have rung Thursday in the United Nations’ temporary General Assembly hall, but one side was not there to hear it. Eyebrows were raised both inside the UN and outside when the Israeli delegation was conspicuously absent from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s address.
This, however, was not round two of the Israeli boycott process, following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s order to his UN delegation to walk out before Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s address here on Tuesday. As Netanyahu prepared to head to the US from Jerusalem Thursday night, the Israelis already here, led by Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, firmly rejected accusations that the delegation had boycotted Abbas’s speech in the General Assembly plenary debate.
“The holiday is the only reason that we weren’t present today,” a delegation representative told The Times of Israel.
And in fact, the Israelis had been at pains to maintain a low profile in the final hours of the Sukkot festival. The delegation members hustled out of a Wednesday evening press conference shortly before the sun set, marking the beginning of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. When they popped up again, it was at a holiday dinner.
Delegates maintained the low profile Thursday, absenting themselves from public UN events altogether.
But the empty Israeli chairs were not the only notable seating issue during the PA president’s speech. Abbas himself enjoyed a new perspective on the plenum, waiting for his turn while seated for the first time in the large, beige chair reserved for heads of state.
During last year’s plenary, Abbas was not entitled to such ceremonial prestige. Shortly afterwards, in November 2012, the UN upgraded the PA to the status of nonmember observer state. This upgrade — Abbas subsequently argued to UN officials — entitled him to a seating upgrade as well. The pope, as head of the Vatican City nonmember observer state, had been allowed to sit in the oversized seat, he argued. Why not the head of the Palestinian Authority?
PA officials excitedly leaked earlier Thursday that Abbas had indeed been granted his upgrade. Tales circling the halls Thursday held that his late predecessor Yasser Arafat had once placed his hand on the then out-of-reach chair to symbolize his aspirations to Palestinian statehood. Whether such stories are apocryphal or not, the chair took its place Thursday in the pantheon of Palestinian symbolism.
Abbas’s new head-of-state seating status seemed to be reflected in his performance when he rose from the chair to deliver his address. Whether it was the new seat that did it, or the renewed peace talks between Israel and the PA, or the realization that most world attention is focused elsewhere in the region this year, Abbas’s tone during his GA address this time was markedly more conciliatory — and calmer as well. The angry Abbas, demanding UN recognition of statehood one year ago, was replaced by a more soft-spoken delivery and somewhat gentler content in which he echoed US president Ronald Reagan’s call to tear down the Berlin Wall and quoted poetry.
The US chief negotiator excitedly noted on his Twitter account that “at end of UNGA speech Abu Mazen departed from text and added: ‘The hour of peace for two peoples — Palestinian and Israeli peoples — has rung.’”
While the tweet spread, back in the plenary the seats returned to their usual role. As chairs.