NEW YORK – The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be at the center of dialogue among major powers during this year’s United Nations General Assembly opening session, but in speech after speech during the General Debate, heads of state reminded listeners that despite the pressing urgency of the Syrian civil war, the spread of the Islamic State and expanding Russian influence in both eastern Europe and the Middle East, Israel’s conduct was still a major concern.
In contrast to previous years, the topic has been barely mentioned by European leaders – and mention of it was notably missing from speeches by the most powerful heads of state, including those of Russia, the United States, the European Union and China.
That is not to say, however, that the conflict was ignored.
In the opening speech by a world leader, delivered Monday morning, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told delegates that “we can no longer delay…the creation of a Palestinian State, coexisting peacefully and harmoniously with Israel.”
“In the same vein, the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories cannot be tolerated,” she added.
Representatives of Arab League states were – characteristically – strident in their criticism of Israel.
Qatar’s Amir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani delivered a long excoriation of Israel’s policy, arguing that “the just and lasting solution of Palestinian cause, which remains an issue of people displaced from their land, and are still under the yoke of occupation, cannot be delayed to the next generation.”
“The achievement of a just and lasting settlement that allows an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and establishing a Palestinian State requires an Israeli partner for peace,” he said. “For the time being, there is neither an Israeli partner for a just peace, nor even for a settlement.”
Describing the conflict as “the last de facto colonial issue in modern history,” al-Thani called for international action, citing “the condemned hectic settlement activity” as well as “the persistent violations of the sanctity of al-Aqsa Mosque, which is a clear indication not only of the absence of Israel’s will for peace, but also the domination of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist nationalist elements over of the Israeli policy.”
“The continuation of the Palestinian cause without a permanent and just solution is a stigma at the face of humanity,” he argued. “The international community is failing in what is less than a fair settlement, it did not even succeed in forcing the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the aggression.
Al-Thani complained that in Israel “extremist religious political forces tend to rely on literal interpretations of text versions dating back to thousands of years in order to desecrate other people’s sanctities, occupy their land and to settle on it.”
“Isn’t this tantamount to a religious fundamentalism? Isn’t this violence an act of terrorism carried out by radical religious forces?” he asked.
He called on the Security Council to take action to force Israel to halt settlement activity, lift its blockade on Gaza, “and to be committed to implementing the resolutions of the international legitimacy that recognize the Palestinian people right to regain their legitimate national rights, and establish an independent Palestinian state according to 1967-borders, as per the principle of the two-state solution.”
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told delegates that “resolving this conflict and empowering the Palestinian people to exercise their right to self-determination and to an independent state within [the 1967 lines], with East Jerusalem as its capital, will effectively eliminate one of the most important factors contributing to the region’s instability and one of the most dangerous pretexts used to justify extremism and terrorism.”
Like al-Thani and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Sissi specifically cited recent tensions on the Temple Mount as a major concern.
But it was not just Arab League representatives who called out Israel.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe switched themes from warning of “new rights” – a reference to criticism his government has faced for its anti-gay policies – to advocating for the Palestinian cause.
“In the Middle East, the suffering of the Palestinian people continues unabated,” Mugabe complained. “We reiterate our unwavering support to the just cause of the Palestinian people. We also reiterated that lasting peace in the Middle East can only be achieved through negotiations, to achieve a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders.”
The American Jewish Committee’s David Harris, who will meet with representatives of dozens of countries during the General Assembly, said that the common references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often the result of habit.
“A lot of countries are on automatic pilot when it comes to their speeches at the UNGA,” he suggested. “Irrespective of whatever else that is going on in the world there is this compulsive need to refer to the conflict.”
Harris noted that some two-thirds of all UN member states belong to organizations that have supported agendas hostile to Israel, including the Arab League, the Non-aligned Movement and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In the first two days of speeches, many states – including Namibia, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Kuwait, Mali and Nigeria – all declared their support for the Palestinian cause.
Harris’s organization has launched a campaign to call attention to the anti-Israel bias at a number of UN institutions. On the opening day of the General Debate, the AJC took out an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal pointing to institutional discrimination at the world body – particularly at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council — which has issued more condemnations of Israel than of all other member states combined and dedicates an entire agenda item (#7) to scrutinizing Israel.
Discussing the General Debate, Harris said that the focus on Israel was “almost like this Pavlovian reaction.”
“That’s one of the sad realities,” he elaborated. “There are years when it should be mentioned. When accords are signed, and there’s hope in the air and a sense of progress, then it makes sense for many countries to refer to the conflict and hope for a resolution – but to use this standard language is a kind of reflexive action.”
Harris said that to some extent, the frequent references stemmed from years of faulty analysis – what he described as “the belief that the Israel-Palestinian conflict was the key to the entire region — solve the conflict – which in UN terms means put pressure on Israel – and you’ve solved the entire Middle East.”
“Now its pretty clear to all but the willfully blind that it is not the key to the entire Middle East,” he continued. “Yes it’s a conflict, but there are much bigger issues at hand here. They’re having trouble trying to reprogram themselves. It’s not just an intellectual process but a political one. They have to say to the rest of the word, oops. It was a problem but Israel is not the root of the problem.”
For some leaders, the inference that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the root of regional unrest remained a relevant talking point.
After congratulating the General Assembly for “providing a voice for the voiceless and oppressed” and citing the resolution to raise the Palestinian flag at the world body on Wednesday, South African President Jacob Zuma declared that “there can be no peace, security and development in the Middle East without the resolution of the Palestinian question.”
“A solution is urgent otherwise if we delay, in the next decade, we may no longer have a piece of land to justify the two-state solution,” he warned.