The UN general general assembly displays the limits of multilateralism as the debate on the Palestinians' observer status showed
“If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it,” the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once said of the United Nations General Assembly, “it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.” Eban died a decade ago, yet he predicted with uncanny accuracy what actually took place in the General Assembly (GA) on November 29, except that it was Sudan that introduced the resolution rather than Algeria. The actual wording of Resolution A67/L.28 extended non-member observer status to Palestine. Yet since Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the West Bank are in bitter, sometimes lethal dispute over who represents the would-be state-and the US will veto Palestinian statehood in the Security Council anyhow-it was the precise equivalent of declaring the earth as flat. Yet despite its inherent absurdity, the resolution passed by 138 to 9 with 41 abstentions, so if anything Eban had overestimated the degree of support for Israel in his satirical quip.
If you ever have a free afternoon in New York, do go down to 46th Street and 1st Avenue on the East River and walk around the Tower of Babel there. Find time to look in at a General Assembly debate. It will instantly cure you of any lingering doubts you might have about the wisdom of multilateralism, as delegates from hell-holes like Burkina Faso and Chad take enormous pleasure (and time) lecturing the “colonialist, racist” West on every crime imaginable. Try to get there before the present $2 billion refurbishment has ruined the authentic ramshackle Seventies look of the place, complete with its tiny ancient lifts, dodgy simultaneous-translation plastic earpieces, and 15ft-high damp stains on the walls which look uncannily like the modern art inside the General Assembly’s huge chamber.
The rows of TV satellite vans outside the gates on November 29 alerted passers-by to the importance of the Palestinian debate, although in the context of the GA, the term “debate” is ludicrous. There is no sense of an interaction of ideas, of a thesis and antithesis coming together in some kind of Hegelian way to create a synthesis. Instead, a queue of delegates go to the podium with its famous green marble background, and make speeches largely for domestic consumption with no thought of attempting to persuade the unconverted. Furthermore, there is no consideration given to allowing both sides of the argument equal time to state their case. To make it even more ridiculous, much of the debate takes place after the vote has been taken. Although debates in the chronically unpunctual GA tend to start half an hour later than advertised, somehow they always end ten minutes before the delegation cocktail parties start at 6pm.
There was a palpable sense of occasion for the “Status of Palestine at the United Nations” debate, with every seat taken in the normally half-empty public gallery, and junior diplomats being turned away. Men in keffiyeh and women in headscarves took photos of each other with their iPhones and iPads. There was one young man in a yarmulke (skull cap), looking suitably gloomy. When I asked a young diplomat from the Israeli mission to predict the result, his sole response was “dire”. To make the situation even worse for the Israelis, the result of a lottery at the start of the GA’s 67th session to organise the seating meant that the Israeli delegation had to sit next to the Palestinians. There were 188 possible permutations for placement, yet somehow the lottery produced a result whereby the three Jewish diplomats were forced to sit next to their tormentors.
Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, the Sudanese ambassador, began the debate by saying “We welcome the children of Palestine, who have shown patience and good faith,” before entering into a predictable diatribe against Israel and denouncing “the unacceptability of taking territory by force”. Considering that that was precisely what his country had done to its southern non-Muslim neighbour from 1983 to 2011, the hypocrisy was breathtaking, but then hypocrisy is the small change of GA debates. North Korea lectures other countries on food production, Iran will solemnly intone on the benefits of disarmament, Zimbabwe will preach about democracy, and they all without exception talk ceaselessly about human rights, as they blithely torture and murder their own citizens back home.
Due either to the height of the dome above the speaker’s podium, or possibly the positioning of the loudspeakers farther back in the very long chamber, there is an echo in the General Assembly that afflicts all the speeches there. In the Palestinian debate this echo-chamber effect was doubly amplified because the Sudanese, Indonesian and Turkish all made precisely the same speech. They had interchangeable phrases about how “the eyes of all the children of Palestine are directed towards us”, and references to “Israeli aggression”, “the courage of Yasser Arafat”, and so on. Not a word about Hamas or Hezbollah rocket attacks, and in all the talk about “ethnic cleansing” there was no mention of the Jewish communities that existed throughout the Middle East before 1948. They also all spoke of the historic nature of the debate, but the first time it was mentioned, the English interpreter translated it as “hysteric”, by far the better adjective.
When Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, walked to the podium, the normally somnambulant chamber erupted into applause, including wolf-whistles. Presented with an opportunity to show statesmanship, he instead launched into a violent tirade against the “incessant flood of Israeli threats” and Israel’s “racist colonialist occupation”, describing the two-state solution as “a very difficult choice if not impossible”. He stated that: “Israeli occupation is . . . an apartheid system . . . which institutionalises the plague of racism.” By harking back constantly to the “catastrophe” of 1948-which he described in terms of genocide-and never accepting the right of Israel to exist, Abbas was clearly trying to shore up support back home, yet he was also given a standing ovation by about two-fifths of the chamber and very many in the public gallery. Here was the old Palestinian snarl in all its old fury and resentment, turning down the olive branch yet again. Abbas did not actually wear a uniform and gun-holster in the GA chamber, as Yasser Arafat once did, but he might as well have done.
In reply, Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, gave the speech of his life. “Today I stand before you tall and proud because I represent the world’s one and only Jewish state,” he began in his deep bass voice, “a state built in the Jewish people’s ancient homeland, with its eternal capital Jerusalem as its beating heart. We are a nation with deep roots in the past and bright hopes for the future. We are a nation that values idealism, but acts with pragmatism. Israel is a nation that never hesitates to defend itself, but will always extend its hand for peace.” He spoke of the importance of peace in Jewish history and culture, of the peace treaties that Israel had made with Anwar Sadat and King Hussein, and then pointed out how neither the resolution nor Abbas said anything at all about Israel’s right to exist.
“None of these vital interests, these vital interests of peace, none of them appear in the resolution that will be put forward before the General Assembly today and that is why Israel cannot accept it,” he said. The real way for Abbas to advance peace would be to go to Jerusalem and negotiate bilaterally, but instead he preferred to go to New York to grandstand and push through what Prosor rightly called “UN resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests. And because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backwards.” Prosor continued: “No decision by the UN can break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.”
The rest of the speech was a passionate but logical explanation of why Palestinian statehood would prove utterly counter-productive at this point. It was a tour de force, and its focused rationality reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s speeches against the Maastricht treaty in the House of Lords in the mid-Nineties. “The truth is that Israel wants peace, and the Palestinians are avoiding peace,” he concluded. “Those who are supporting the resolution today are not advancing peace. They are undermining peace. The UN was founded to advance the cause of peace. Today the Palestinians are turning their back on peace. Don’t let history record that today the UN helped them along on their march of folly.”
The next speaker, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, also made reference to history, speaking about “the inhuman treatment of the Palestinians from the First World War to today”, and the “inalienable rights” of peoples to states of their own. That would be the same Turkey whose brutal suppression of the Armenian and Kurdish peoples has continued from, well, the First World War to today.
Although the US ambassador Susan Rice criticised the tone of Israel’s detractors, it’s hard to escape the growing realisation that the true leadership of the Free World today, at least in moral terms, lies with America’s great neighbour to the north. Stephen Harper’s Liberal government in Canada is the nation-state equivalent of the honey-badger, a creature that marches happily to its own tune and hangs the consequences. If every Western nation—and specifically Britain and Germany, which pathetically abstained—had the moral purpose and certainty of present-day Canada, the planet would be a much happier and better place. Just like John Howard’s Australian government a decade ago, the Harper ministry is teaching the rest of the English-speaking peoples what a country with backbone can do. The speech from Canada’s foreign minister John Baird was a masterpiece of frankness, logic and decency. He looks like an ice-hockey goalie and doesn’t mince his words, saying the day after the debate: “The bottom line is we will not let the Jewish people and the State of Israel stand alone when the going gets tough.” Yet there were all too few people of his calibre present, and the General Assembly voted by an overwhelming 15-to-1 majority in favour of the resolution. The earth is therefore officially flat, and it was Israel that flattened it.
Only the Liberian delegation failed to turn up to the debate at all. I’m not sure what Her Excellency Madam Marjon V. Kamara, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Liberia to the United Nations, was doing on that historic/hysteric day, but she could hardly have been wasting her time in a more unproductive, predictable and depressing way than the rest of her colleagues in the General Assembly.