Are there any progressives out there sufficiently committed to the peace process and the two-state solution to criticize Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly? Abbas’s address once again proved his “moderation” to be a masquerade, as he plunged Palestinians and Israelis into round after round of the delegitimization derby, piling on insults and libels, making it difficult for any self-respecting Israeli government to respond constructively. And the fact that after more than 1,600 words of denunciations and demonization, he claimed to “reaffirm, without hesitation,” his and his people’s commitment to “peace and international legitimacy,” suggested that he was insulting the international community’s intelligence, not just the Israeli “occupier.”
Before Abbas’s false call for peace, he warned of “the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country, Palestine.” He used the code words his mentor Yasser Arafat first injected into the Israeli-Palestinian conversation: “racist,” “discriminatory,” “ethnic cleansing,” “siege,” “apartheid,” “terrorism,” “colonial,” etc. etc. Most of these words were purposely imported into the language about the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the 1970s to turn discussion of the conflict from its local particulars to universal condemnations, as a way of linking the Palestinians with all Third World victims of Western powers. Bringing new meaning to the word chutzpah, Abbas then complained about “an Israeli political discourse that does not hesitate to brandish aggressive, extremist positions, which in many aspects and its practical application on the ground is inciting religious conflict.”
By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech began with an affirmation of Jewish history not a negation of the Palestinians. He segued into his call for “a durable peace with the Palestinians” by talking about a point of common civility: how Israeli doctors treated Palestinian Arabs in Israelis hospitals. Netanyahu did criticize Abbas’s rant by saying: “We won’t solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the U.N.,” but he limited his denunciations of the Palestinian Authority to two sentences, admittedly spending more time than that attacking Iran and Islamism.
This is not to say that Abbas’s speech had no merit and that Netanyahu’s speech was unassailable. It was heartbreaking to hear Abbas’s account of what he called “at least 535 attacks perpetrated” against Palestinians by Israeli settlers “since the beginning of this year.” The Israeli government must have zero tolerance for such criminal behavior, which is legally and morally wrong. At the same time, Netanyahu’s crude cartoon illustrating the Iranian bomb threat was undignified and unhelpful. Domestic critics are mocking Netanyahu’s address as “the Looney Tunes speech”—and such criticism is deserved.
But on the Palestinian issue, one cannot equate the Israeli Prime Minister’s constructive approach with the Palestinian Authority President’s rhetorical howitzers. Of course, that is precisely what the New York Times and others did. Generating the usual fog of moral equivalence, the Times editorial “Talking at Cross Purposes,” acknowledged Abbas’s “exceptionally sharp rhetoric” while excusing it, and noted Netanyahu’s “reference to wanting peace with the Palestinians” while dismissing it as “brief” and insincere.
For peace to be achieved—in fact, for any real progress to occur—all actors in this enduring drama will have to break out of their assigned roles. Palestinians will have to stop playing the victim and demonizing Israel. And those observers supposedly devoted to peace will have to start criticizing, cajoling, inspiring, and reassuring both sides, showing a willingness to condemn Palestinian actions when warranted and even grant compliments to Israel, if warranted.