PM heads to UN from region in turmoil, with a US president ‘failing to put Israel at ease’

Israeli official tells The Times of Israel: Obama doesn’t give us the same sense Clinton did that he’ll be there if things go bad

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in New York, September 21, 2011 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in New York, September 21, 2011 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday to one of the most tumultuous meetings of the world body in memory.

Several issues make for a frenzied agenda for the gathering, not least from Israel’s point of view: Iran’s nuclear program; public disagreement with US President Barack Obama over how to deal with that program; deep division among Arab countries over Syria, Iran and the results of the Arab Spring; and a new Palestinian bid for recognition as a state — a more limited bid but one that, unlike last year’s, is likely to succeed.

Can Netanyahu, and Israel’s erudite envoy to the world body, veteran diplomat Ron Prosor, snatch some diplomatic achievements from what is usually a forum for symbolic gestures and rhetoric?

Ahmadinejad doesn’t wait to cause trouble

On Monday morning, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to avoid incendiary rhetoric while at the United Nations.

But Ahmadinejad didn’t wait an hour, much less till the start of the general debate on Tuesday, to reject the secretary-general’s call and set the tenor of the international diplomatic discussion about his country’s intentions.

In comments to reporters Monday, Ahmadinejad said his regime does “not take seriously the threats of the Zionists” — a reference to Netanyahu’s suggestion that Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear program if the international community doesn’t do more to slow it down — and then threatened Israel with annihilation.

While Iran has “all the defensive means at our disposal and we are ready to defend ourselves,” Ahmadinejad said, it was Israel that should be worried.

“We do believe that they have found themselves at a dead end and they are seeking new adventures in order to escape this dead end. Iran will not be damaged with foreign bombs,” he vowed, adding, “We don’t even count them as any part of any equation for Iran. During a historical phase, they represent minimal disturbances that come into the picture and are then eliminated.”

Ahmadinejad is expected to speak before the assembled delegates Wednesday morning. The Israeli delegation and Jewish diplomats from other countries are expected to be absent, as the day falls on the sacred Jewish fast of Yom Kippur.

Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are slated to speak to the assembly the following day, in the early afternoon.

Arguing with Obama in the middle of an election

Netanyahu arrives in New York in the midst of a very public election-season disagreement with the American president over how to handle the Iranian nuclear program.

The tiff included interviews Netanyahu gave last week to CNN and NBC, in which he called on Obama to set “red lines” for Iran’s nuclear program that would trigger an American military intervention. Leaks from the Prime Minister’s Office suggested Obama has refused to meet with Netanyahu when he travels to the US this week.

Senior American officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even Obama himself, rejected the “red lines” call in conversations with reporters.

The disagreement, in the middle of what many observers believe will be a close election, has drawn a great deal of attention and comment, much of it dealing with the politics of the spat rather than the substance.

Thus, on Monday, the political magazine The Hill quoted senior Congressional Democrats publicly chastising the prime minister for the leak that suggested he was “snubbed” by the Obama White House.

California Democrat Henry Waxman said he “didn’t think it was appropriate for the prime minister to publicly get into a dispute with the president of the United States, since we’re both very closely working together to impose sanctions and to force Iran to stop its development of a nuclear weapon.”

Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, meanwhile, wondered aloud if Netanyahu was acting to support Republican candidate Mitt Romney. “And he’s making a mistake if he is,” Frank said. “I think it was unwise for him to do as much. I think they’ve pulled back a little bit.”

For his part, Netanyahu has said repeatedly that the timing of his calls for a red line for Iran’s nuclear program is not related to the American electoral calendar, but to the Iranian nuclear one.

A top Israeli official explained to The Times of Israel that Netanyahu feels it is he, not Obama, who is under pressure.

“The prime minister looks around him and sees what’s on his plate. Lebanon and Syria, the situation in Sinai and Egypt. Jordan looks stable, but it’s not at all. Iran and Gaza and Hezbollah. And he says to the Americans, ‘the greatest danger by far is Iran. Will you take care of Iran?’”

That Israeli sense that the region is becoming more dangerous with each passing day is driving the prime minister’s actions, the official, who asked to remain anonymous, said last week.

And while Israelis peer fearfully around at a region in turmoil, Obama is failing to put them at ease, the official added.

“President Clinton made us feel like he had our back [at Camp David]. When we made concessions that were greater than anything an Israeli government had ever offered, we felt he’d be there if things went bad. Would he have been there? I don’t know. But it felt that way, and it put us in a different frame of mind. President Obama doesn’t give us the same sense that he’d be there.”

This official does not believe Obama is uniquely unfriendly toward Israel, noting, “He just doesn’t seem to make friends. Not with anyone. He isn’t friendly with David Cameron either.”

Is there such a thing as an Arab bloc anymore?

Officials at the General Assembly cannot recall a time when Arab states arrived more divided, weakened and confused.

Long beset by economic decline, corrupt institutions, disenfranchisement, and inadequate opportunities for women, the Arab states have reaped the whirlwind of those years of mismanagement. Some governments, such as those of Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, represent a new, more chaotic Middle East, while others, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar and Syria, represent the old order.

These camps are deeply divided, even within themselves, on many issues on the General Assembly’s agenda, especially the continuing bloodbath in Syria, Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony and nuclear weapons, and, at a deeper level, questions of democracy and the role of Islam in public life.

Arab delegates’ speeches will likely garner a more interested audience than in previous years, as observers and world leaders try to discern where the region may be headed.

The birth of a new Palestinian state, and why it won’t matter

The Palestinians, meanwhile, look set to ask — or at least announce that they plan to ask — the General Assembly to upgrade their status from that of an observer entity to that of an observer state.

If the move is ultimately accepted — and even Israeli officials acknowledge it will succeed if pursued — the Palestinian Authority will have gained formal, though non-binding acknowledgment from the UN’s main decision-making body that it is a state.

“Instead of going 15 kilometers from Ramallah to Jerusalem, the Palestinians are flying all the way to the UN to change their status from observer to observer state,” Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor told The Times of Israel.

“They have an automatic majority [in the General Assembly], so they’ll get it, but it’s not going to change anything on the ground, and it will only raise expectations and therefore increase frustration [among Palestinians],” he added.

“What’s the point of declaring a state?” Prosor asked. “Do you control Gaza? No. Have you [Abbas] even visited Gaza? Not since 2005. So do you have democratic structures in place? There have been no elections since 2005-6.

“The Palestinians are trying to bypass direct negotiations and trying to internationalize the conflict,” Prosor said of the move.

“But there is no way to circumvent direct negotiations. I know from experience that in order to move forward, you have to sit and negotiate. There are good guys on both sides, but we have to work with each other. Both sides have to sit down and deal with all the issues they know about,” he said.

It sounds so sensible, and so simple: sitting down together and working with each other. But at this UN General Assembly, not even the allies — Obama and Netanyahu — are going to do that, much less the adversaries.

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