Palestine in Speeches at the UN General Assembly: Reading between the Lines

The speeches of the US president, the Israeli prime minister, and the Palestinian president during general debate of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which has long been a space that provided an opportunity to elevate the Palestinian issue, reflect shifting priorities and the lack of commitment by all three to create any meaningful change. From its partition plan, to its induction of the State of Israel, to Yasser Arafat’s famed 1974 “Olive Branch” speech, the UNGA has long played host to key moments of discussion around Israel and Palestine. No space within this institution has featured as prominently as the general meeting where world leaders descend on New York each September to address a global audience and, simultaneously, their populations back home. This year’s debate featured a new American president and Israeli prime minister and a very old Palestinian president. What can we glean from their speeches about their agendas, priorities, and prospects for change when it comes to Israel and Palestine?

The Speakers

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett both addressed the UNGA for the first time while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been a regular speaker for over a decade and a half. Both Biden and Bennett replaced predecessors who had a jolting impact on their respective nations’ relations with the world. Biden, the former vice president to President Barack Obama and long-time chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, sought to set a new tone after President Donald Trump spent four years as the United States’ face to the world. Trump’s approach, which elevated nativism, nationalism, and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment, ruptured long-standing US relationships, particularly with NATO allies.

Bennett replaced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving premier who, like Trump, developed relationships with authoritarians around the world while doubling down on abusive policies at home. Netanyahu had also routinely pursued grandstanding on the UNGA stage. Bennett would have large shoes to fill, and despite being raised by American parents and spending some time growing up in the United States, his strong English was still not as polished as that of Netanyahu, who built a reputation for being just as effective a communicator in English as he was in Hebrew, if not better. Netanyahu sold himself to Israeli voters as the best person to manage Israel’s relations with the world. For this reason, the performance of the newly minted Bennett would be closely scrutinized at home.

Netanyahu sold himself to Israeli voters as the best person to manage Israel’s relations with the world. For this reason, the performance of the newly minted Bennett would be closely scrutinized at home. 

Abbas took over the reins after Yasser Arafat died in 2004. He has become increasingly repressive at home; indeed, popular resentment toward him is reaching its highest levels. At the same time, Abbas has not chosen a clear successor or put a succession plan in place, even as the Palestinian people face a profound human rights and humanitarian crisis as a result of Israeli apartheid.

These important personal contexts shaped the speeches that were delivered. Both Biden and Bennett hoped to communicate something new while Abbas sought to reinforce old messages.

The Speeches

Each speaker had his own agenda and this came through clearly in the speeches they delivered. The differences provide an important context for considering the contours of the Israel/Palestine situation and the prospects for change through international institutions.

Joe Biden. For President Biden, the aim of his speech was twofold: to remind the world that the Trump era is over and, simultaneously, that the United States is at a critical moment in its foreign affairs, having to shift to address new challenges. Biden’s speech came just weeks after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he characterized as a key turning point. After closing “this period of relentless war,” the United States would seek to open “a new era of relentless diplomacy.” This does not mean that the United States would hesitate to defend its vital interests, as Biden said, but that “the mission must be clear and achievable, undertaken with the informed consent of the American people and, whenever possible, in partnership with our Allies. U.S. military power must be our tool of last resort, not our first, and it should not be used as an answer to every problem we see around the world.”

This is a far cry from the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” that was launched two decades ago. To be sure, Biden’s speech at the UNGA capped a failed American experiment filled with costly lessons. The president went on to explain that the greatest challenges “cannot be solved or even addressed through the force of arms” and dedicated much of his speech to talking about the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as that of climate change. The president also struck a more humble tone than some of his predecessors, perhaps due to the embarrassing scenes on January 6th, 2021 when supporters of former President Trump tried violently to reverse the result of the 2020 presidential election. Biden continued by saying that “no democracy is perfect, including the United States,” since it “will continue to struggle to live up to the highest ideals to heal our divisions, and we face down violence and insurrection.”

The winding down of major fronts in the “war on terror” coincides with a shift in US “priorities and the regions of the world, like the Indo-Pacific, that are most consequential today and tomorrow,” as Biden put it. So where does that leave the Middle East?

Biden mentioned Iran very briefly, with standard language about preventing it from acquiring a nuclear weapon; he also voiced a commitment to returning to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He mentioned Israel quickly in the context of an American pledge to its security as well as his belief in “a two-state solution.” However, Biden acknowledged, “we’re a long way from that goal at this moment.”

Biden mentioned Israel quickly in the context of an American pledge to its security as well as his belief in “a two-state solution.”

Overall, when it came to the Middle East, Biden’s speech reflected a de-prioritization of the region. Yes, the United States has interests there, but it seeks to pursue them diplomatically where possible while switching its focus in China’s direction to address global challenges and regional interests.

Naftali Bennett. For Israel’s new prime minister, the agenda was simple: extol his nation while putting all the negative focus on Iran and giving no attention whatsoever to the Palestinians. Bennett knew that every step he takes on the global stage would be compared to those of his predecessor, who used forums like the UNGA as theater. Known for one-liners and featuring bizarre props, Benjamin Netanyahu’s UNGA speeches often had a “what will he do this time” aura to them. But instead of attempting to set himself apart from Netanyahu, Bennett tried to emulate him. His speech opened with over-the-top one-liners that seemed to be culled from Netanyahu’s discarded speech drafts. “Israel is a lighthouse in a stormy sea,” he began, hitting orientalist notes as if he was starting to tell an adventure tale and not address a room full of international diplomats.

Bennett, too, went on to focus on the pandemic and, specifically, Israel’s response to it, calling it the premier global challenge, along with political polarization. These are two thorny problems Bennett believes Israel has overcome under his leadership, with a response to the virus and a motley governing coalition.

Bennett ignored Palestine and the Palestinians altogether—as if he were representing some unrelated country on a completely different continent.

But the most notable part of Bennett’s speech was what he omitted: any mention of the Palestinians. While the American president addressed the Palestinian issue at the moment he mentioned Israel in his speech, Bennett ignored Palestine and the Palestinians altogether—as if he were representing some unrelated country on a completely different continent. In fact, several other UNGA speakers mentioned the Palestinians; however, the leader who actually rules over them with a military occupation remained mum. The closest Bennett got to discussing this issue in his address was when he said, “Israelis don’t wake up in the morning thinking about conflict,” a line that is very telling. The Israeli prime minister, even though he was standing before an institution that has spent countless hours on international law, human rights, and resolutions aimed at peace between nations, chose to tell the audience that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Israelis basically prefer to ignore it. In sum, therefore, Bennett’s speech presented a reflection of his policy, that is, not to try to shrink the conflict but to shirk it entirely.

Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took a very different approach and focused entirely on the Palestinian struggle for freedom against Israel. Unlike the speeches of Bennett and Biden, in which the virus featured prominently, COVID-19 was not mentioned once by Abbas. In fact, his speech could have been written in a pre-2020 world (or a pre-2010 world, for that matter): very little, if anything, was new. He touched on Israeli violations and their incompatibility with international law; he also addressed the steps Palestinians have taken to cooperate with the international community and to build and develop Palestinian institutions.

Just in case listeners were not taking him seriously, Abbas insisted on a deadline: “To ensure our initiative is not open-ended, we must state that Israel, the occupying Power, has one year to withdraw from the Palestinian territory.”

In a line that could have been included, and perhaps was, in any UNGA speech by Abbas in the last 20 years, the Palestinian president said: “I call on the Secretary-General to convene an international peace conference, in line with the internationally-recognized terms of reference and United Nations resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative, and under the sole auspices of the international Quartet.” And just in case listeners were not taking Abbas seriously, he insisted on a deadline: “To ensure our initiative is not open-ended, we must state that Israel, the occupying Power, has one year to withdraw from the Palestinian territory it occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

A one-year deadline sounds familiar because five years earlier, the 2016 UNSC resolution 2334 urged immediate action to salvage a two-state solution within a one-year timeline. That particular resolution also recalled a Middle East Quartet statement from 2010. In other words, much like Abbas, who is in the 15th year of a four-year term, this one-year deadline is a decade old.

Reading between the Lines

 The common theme that runs through all three of these speeches regarding Israel/Palestine is a lack of resolve, urgency, and commitment to adequately address the issue. For Joe Biden, America would like to see a “two-state solution” but is busy elsewhere and not prepared to prioritize the issue. For Naftali Bennett, that is just fine, since he would much rather point the world in Iran’s direction instead of addressing his own government’s apartheid system. Furthermore, the Israeli prime minister wants a world where Israel can run an unending military occupation over Palestinians without Israelis having to wake up thinking about it. Shirking all responsibility for the abuse of Palestinians is the goal.

Abbas, too, plays into this directly by rehashing old and failed approaches endlessly. His speech basically suggests that he gave up long ago. As Israel is openly telling the world that it is not interested in addressing the issue, and as the United States is openly shifting its priorities in directions that, in its view, make Middle East peacemaking even less important, President Abbas is failing to elevate the Palestinian issue to the top of the agenda and is complicit in keeping it down. It is no wonder that at home, and on the eve of his speech, Abbas was met with the news of a new poll of Palestinians indicating that 80 percent of respondents wanted him to resign. Indeed, there was a time when Palestinian leaders used the UNGA platform more effectively, when their demands had more credibility and when their institutions had more legitimacy. That was a long, long time ago and Palestinians are increasingly taking note.