The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting, held each year in September in New York City, is an opportunity for world leaders to gather and a moment for them to refocus conversation on international issues. For Israelis and Palestinians, the forum has often been a space to reassert each party’s views before the international community, often with a degree of political theater. Speeches and side meetings that take place at the UNGA can be major moments in shifting policy discussions; however, there is little evidence of such breakthroughs at the most recent gathering of global diplomats last week.
The only newsworthy item to emerge from the UNGA on the question of Palestine came from the encounter between US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the New York event. Both leaders had the typically warm meeting and complimented each other in their remarks before the press, but the comments of note came during the brief question and answer session that followed.
For the first time since taking office, President Trump expressed a preference for the “two-state solution.” Previously, Trump had infamously said that he was fine with either one state or two, “the one that both parties like”—in other words, he had no preference. For better or worse, there is no doubt that this early proclamation by the Trump Administration was a significant departure from long-held US policy grounded in the stated goal of a two-state outcome. For the first time, Trump sounded a different tune: “I like two-state solution. Yeah. That’s—that what I think—that’s what I think works best. I don’t even have to speak to anybody, that’s my feeling. Now, you may have a different feeling—I don’t think so—but I think two-state solution works best.”
Trump did not elaborate on what he thinks a two-state solution should look like or how he was going to create policy to advance that objective. His comment, indecisive as it was, still must have come as something of a shock to the most right-wing elements in Israel who had welcomed Trump’s distancing himself from the previous two-state focus of US policy. Naftali Bennett, Israeli government minister and head of the Jewish Home party—a key coalition member of Netanyahu’s government—tweeted after Trump’s remarks that while he believes Trump is a “friend of Israel,” a Palestinian state would not be established so long as Bennett’s party was in the government.
Netanyahu, who has long opposed a Palestinian state, had nothing to say in response to Trump’s statement, probably not to spoil the mood. Later however, in an interview with NPR, Netanyahu made clear that he does not want Palestinians “either as citizens of Israel or subjects of Israel. But I think there is not an either-or model. I think we have a third model at the very least which is what I’m talking about: basically all the powers of sovereignty, or nearly all the powers, but not the ones of security.” He went on to explain that in his model, Israel would retain the power to enter into Palestinian territory and militarily police it. In other words, Netanyahu’s best-case scenario is a modified military occupation—but military occupation nonetheless.
Trump, who did all of the talking during the question and answer period, also referred to his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying that he “took probably the biggest chip off the table.” He suggested the Palestinians would be “coming back to the table”—after the United States cut $550 million in funds to them. Two other statements of note referred to a new timetable for the release of the Trump Administration’s peace plan, which the president said would come “over the next two to three to four months, something like that. That would be the time that I’d like to at least release the plan.” He also stated that he wanted to get the deal done soon: “It is a dream of mine to be able to get that done prior to the end of my first term. I don’t want to do it in my second term; we’ll do other things in my second term.”
A Message to Abbas?
Trump’s quip about the two-state solution, as informal as it may have seemed, was surely a calculated decision. Since Trump first uttered a lack of preference for two states or one in February of 2017, this has been the administration’s policy and it has been routinely reiterated by the State Department. This shift might well be intended as an overture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has declared that Trump is incapable of mediating between Israel and the Palestinians after his decision on Jerusalem. Since then, the United States has moved forward with a pressure campaign aimed at the Palestinians. Washington had been hoping to recruit more Arab leaders to assume the role of putting pressure on the Palestinians, but that became harder after the Jerusalem decision. Trump was now going to have to press Abbas himself while, at the same time, attempting to preserve his position as a mediator. The decision to state a preference for a two-state solution might be a message to Abbas that Trump remains interested and willing to negotiate a solution, and further, that playing hardball with Abbas does not mean that the Palestinian leader should tune him out. However, after all that has transpired, it is hard to expect Abbas to come back to the table, knowing he is at a disadvantage and lacking real trust in the mediator.
The concept of a two-state solution has long been understood to entail certain parameters. These include understandings on issues such as settlements, borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and sovereignty. It is not clear at all whether Trump himself understands that the two-state concept is tied to other core issues, many of which he has actively worked to undercut. The US embassy move to Jerusalem, which Trump repeatedly says is now “off the table,” is perhaps the greatest example. There is no two-state solution acceptable to Palestinians or to the international community that does not include a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. After everything Trump has done to undermine the Palestinians, it will take a lot more than merely supporting the concept of a Palestinian state for anyone to seriously believe he is committed to the idea.
Speeches Signal Different Priorities
All three leaders—Trump, Netanyahu, and Abbas—spoke before the UNGA. Trump’s speech, which became a moment of mockery for many, touched on various topics in international affairs. When he did discuss issues in the Middle East, however, such as the wars in Syria and Yemen or matters in the Gulf, he continued to point his finger at Iran. This was music to Netanyahu’s ears, as the Israeli prime minister focused his own speech on Iran. One of Netanyahu’s key objectives on the international stage was to shift discussion away from Israel’s oppressive relationship with Palestinians and toward Israel’s attempts to protect itself from Iran. In Netanyahu’s UNGA speech, he mentioned Iran nearly 60 times. And, if the message was not clear enough, the prime minister once again brought visual props, just as he infamously had done in 2012 when a placard of a cartoon bomb drew both headlines and ridicule.
Abbas spent his time at the podium reiterating his position, slamming the decisions by Washington to move its embassy and slash funds to Palestinians, and calling on members of the international community to start or continue to officially recognize the state of Palestine. He began his speech with a message for Trump, saying plainly that “Jerusalem is not for sale.” Abbas also had a message buried in his speech for Hamas when he mentioned that he would no longer bear any responsibility for Gaza if Hamas did not abide by agreements brokered by Egypt. This might be a precursor to further financial constraints on the already besieged Gaza Strip.
While he can be sure the Israelis and Americans were listening closely to his words, Abbas’s main audience was likely in the Arab and Muslim worlds where he has worked to maintain a consensus around the idea of a Palestinian state. This has not always been easy, especially given the efforts of the Israelis—and now the Trump Administration—to try to drive a wedge between the Arab states, particularly influential Gulf states, and the Palestinian Authority. But Abbas’s message was also supported by the UNGA speech of the king of Jordan, who not only emphasized regional and global support for a Palestinian state but also brushed away alternative ideas—likely in response to reports that Trump sought to pursue a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. King Abdullah also took a swipe at the Trump Administration for its cuts to funding for Palestinian refugees through the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has an important presence in Jordan. Together Abdullah and Abbas made clear that it was important to hold onto the two-state concept and that the Arab and Muslim worlds were behind it. How much faith their domestic audiences still have in these statements is not certain. Even more ambiguous is if the current occupant of the White House cares to listen.
Overshadowed by Events
Each year, the last two weeks in September present a period during which international affairs jump back to the top of the media agenda, even if briefly. With world leaders gathered in New York, including friends and adversaries of the United States, cameras and journalists flock to capture the comments, agreements, handshakes, and often the slights between world leaders. This year, President Trump chaired a UN Security Council meeting where he focused on Iran. Most weeks, this alone would have dominated headlines; but in the United States, the September 2018 UNGA was overshadowed by domestic events that diverted the media’s attention. Approximately 20 million people were tuned into a dramatic US Senate hearing about allegations against President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. This day-long hearing took place on the same day that both Netanyahu and Abbas were giving their speeches at the UNGA. News coverage remained squarely on the hearing; and despite Netanyahu’s gimmicks, which are usually aimed at an English-speaking audience, the speeches drew very little attention outside immediate diplomatic circles in New York.
The major addresses by Trump, Netanyahu, and Abbas at the September 2018 UN General Assembly failed to achieve any advances on the question of Palestine. The Palestinians continue to be alienated from a presumed mediator whose views have all but become identical to those of the Israelis. Empowered by the status quo, Israel is uninterested in any real change. The Palestinians remain both weak and divided and subject to external and debilitating pressure. The Americans are distracted by internal issues and continue to seem inept when trying to recapture any semblance of credibility in the role of mediator.
The most recent UNGA reflected the tired and predictable state of affairs, rather than presenting opportunities to change it. The take-home lesson for Palestinians—perhaps one that should have been clear long ago—is that there is limited utility to these international fora without having built a stronger position of power first. That will be necessary in both the short and long term, regardless of whether Trump’s “deal of the century” is ever announced.