Palestine at the U.N.

Where Ban Ki-Moon Meets Pink Floyd

Sigal Samuel reports on the United Nations' self-critique, and the rock star who brought it home.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at a meeting in observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, praised and defended the nature of Palestine’s bid for non-member state status at the U.N. later today. But Ban's self-reflection on the U.N.'s inability to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was no match for real star-power: later in the session he was upstaged by, well, a rock star who, forgoing mild-mannered critiques, aimed the cannons straight back at the deck.

Ban confessed that he, too, was “frustrated” by the moribund peace process, and noted that “the two-state solution is on life support.” He said, "The cost of the continued stalemate rises with each passing day. This is the context against which the Palestinians decided to seek non-member state status."

Translation: The Palestinians’ effort to upgrade its diplomatic status at the U.N. should not be construed as a rejection of negotiations with Israel, but as a last-ditch effort to do something that will actually yield tangible results—where nothing else has. Aware of Israel’s attempts to get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to shelve his U.N. bid, and leery of Israeli retaliation, Ban aimed to promote a positive interpretation of Abbas’s move and to mitigate its potential fallout.

"What is needed now is political courage,” Ban said, calling on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to breathe new life into the two-state solution. His desire to put the onus on these politicians, along with his clipped tone, reflected his frustration with the United Nations’ poor track record where Israeli-Palestinian peace is concerned.

And Ban wasn’t the only one in the hall who was fed up with the U.N. Mohammad Khazaee, the representative of Iran who spoke on behalf of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seemed engaged in a comic struggle to recognize decades of U.N. efforts—“which we appreciate,” he stated, his tone bristling with italics—even as he expressed frustration with the lack of results achieved by the U.N. over the years. Of course, the Iranian regime’s rejectionist rhetoric and support for violent anti-Israel groups—even terrorists—also probably frustrates the U.N. to no small extent.

More notably, Roger Waters—of Pink Floyd fame—surprised the audience by delivering not only a passionate defense of the Palestinian people and indictment of the Israeli government, but an equally passionate criticism of the U.N. itself. Waters has become a regular of the various campaigns to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. He was the star juror at the Russel Tribunal this year, where his predisposed peers examined charges (absent a defense) that the U.N. was complicit in Israeli war crimes and found the world body—you guessed it—guilty.

Today, Waters praised activists like Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 as she tried to protect the house of a pharmacist and his family in Gaza. “The United Nations had failed to protect the vulnerable Palestinian population living under this prolonged occupation," he said, "to provide the protection that would make Rachel Corrie’s sacrifice unnecessary.”

In the final moments of his address—which a young delegate later told me had given her goose bumps—Waters recognized that everyone in the room was committed to “the centrality of the U.N.” But he also called for serious reform of that same body. “The U.N. needs to embrace a new democracy. The veto must be rethought, or the U.N. will die. The system is too open to abuses. The blanket protection afforded to Israel by the United States’ use of the veto is but one example of such abuse.”

As for the words “blanket protection,” it bears noting that Waters was indicting the U.N. for complicity on a day when the vote is likely to demonstrate that, at the U.N., Israel and the U.S. can be defeated handily—at least in the General Assembly.

And in fact, like many of the other speakers who expressed frustration with the United Nations today, Waters soon made clear his belief that by upgrading Palestine’s diplomatic status, the U.N. stands to make a real difference. He urged the General Assembly: “Seize this historic moment. Support the vote today for Palestinian-enhanced observer statehood status as a step toward full membership.” For the first time today—but perhaps not the last—the audience broke into applause.