At the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week the Israeli Prime Minister succeeded and failed simultaneously. With a cartoonish display, Benjamin Netanyahu managed to become the laughing stock of the internet as parodied images of his bomb chart filled blogs and websites. Iran’s nuclear program, which is something the Israelis have demanded the world take seriously, became a subject of jest. But at the same time something else happened: by the time Netanyahu was done with his classroom antics, no one even remembered that Mahmoud Abbas, the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), had spoken just minutes before.
Abbas, for his part, delivered an important speech even though it contained little in terms of a clear strategy for moving forward. There were, however, noticeable shifts in the language he chose to use, including emphasis on “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid,” and “boycott.” Abbas has long been seen as a moderate Palestinian voice by Washington and his adoption of this language may well be a veiled message that it’s becoming too difficult to maintain cooperation and moderation while there is no progress toward Palestinian self-determination. Most importantly, Abbas took the opportunity to warn the world of the ongoing and impending Nakba the Palestinians are experiencing at the hands of Israeli occupation. Here, in a hall of world leaders, Abbas stood, literally saying that the Palestinian people are being “wiped off the map.”
Enter Netanyahu, and his cartoon. Abbas’s warning was all but forgotten.
What we saw at the UNGA last week was a microcosm of a much larger and ongoing strategy on the part of Netanyahu: to use the Iranian issue to make the Palestinian issue disappear.
In reality, the Iranian issue is being inflated by an Israeli prime minister who is worried about domestic politics in Israel and in the United States. Netanyahu uses Iran to marginalize the Palestinian issue and place a check on President Obama. Only this can explain two bewildering facts.
First, Netanyahu touts a contradictory narrative in which he claims Iran is simultaneously irrational but nonetheless an actor whose decision calculus would be altered by “red lines.” Of course this doesn’t make sense but Netanyahu needs to portray Iran as an irrational actor or else a sense of urgency around the issue will disappear and containment will seem like a viable policy option (which it is).
Second, in January of this year Israeli officials began speaking of intelligence estimates leaving them no choice but to strike in the next six to nine months. Miraculously, the Israeli timeline for a strike coincided precisely with the American electoral calendar. But now, a month away from the election and at the very end of the timeline for a strike that the Israelis laid out, the Israeli prime minister is telling the world we have another six to nine months.
Concerns over the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program and the threat it poses to the nuclear non-proliferation regime are understandable. The hysterical saber-rattling of Benjamin Netanyahu however, which threatens to drag the United States into another costly war, is not.
For now, the Israeli Prime Minister has succeeded in deflecting attention away from the Palestinian issue. Once the American election is over however, this will become more difficult to do, especially if Barack Obama is re-elected. Both Obama and Mitt Romney are committed to Israel, but if Obama is free from electoral constraints he may have an opportunity to revisit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Election season in Israel, which will likely be in the late winter or spring, will buy Netanyahu a bit more time. After that, however, we will be at a critical crossroads.
The Palestinian leadership sees a closing window of opportunity. If there is no significant movement in the first year of Obama’s second term, should he have one, then there will likely be no movement for the next six years. For Palestinians already on the brink this is beyond unacceptable.
For officials in Ramallah the stakes are high. The success of Islamist politics in the region, particularly in Egypt, may prove to be a boost to Hamas and leave the Fateh-dominated Palestinian Authority/PLO in an even weaker position. Failure to secure progress and continued financial strife will be devastating. The incentive for them to act will be great and the window in which to do it in is shrinking.
Palestinian leaders must find a way to put the question of Palestine back at the forefront of the international agenda in the next few months. Otherwise, it will likely end up there anyway when Palestinians erupt in uprising, tired of persistent failures to advance their legitimate rights.