Middle East

Netanyahu, Abbas display divergent priorities at UN

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving their respective speeches to the UN
Image caption The two leaders' speeches revealed little in the way of common interest

It is perhaps one of the paradoxes of the past 18 months in the Middle East that as people protested and dictators toppled, so the region's longest-lasting conflict - that between Israel and the Palestinians - has largely disappeared from the headlines.

What used to be termed "the peace process" has largely become moribund - a useless label as there is no peace process to describe.

The Palestinians, distributed between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have largely been bystanders as the turmoil of the upheavals in the Arab world, from Tunis to Egypt and now in Syria, have swirled around them.

So the UN General Assembly speeches of the two main players in this drama, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were closely watched for any signs of potential progress.

Could there be any kind of opening once the US presidential election is out of the way? Is there any point in the next US President investing political capital in the failing chances for Israel-Palestinian peace?

'An angry people'

Mr Abbas took the podium first. He was well aware of the pressures building up amongst his own people.

He set out a familiar catalogue of charges - the "war crimes" of occupation; Israeli settlement construction establishing new facts on the ground; bad faith on the part of Israeli leaders who talked peace, but did not really want a two-state solution.

It all resulted, Mr Abbas said, in "a policy of dispossession and ethnic cleansing".

The Palestinian leader said he was speaking "on behalf of an angry people". He stressed that something had to change. The path ahead could not be a repeat of the past exercises in fruitless negotiations.

He espoused the two-state solution, noting that "ultimately the two peoples must live and coexist each in their respective state in the Holy Land".

Progress towards peace, he argued, could only come through negotiation and he asserted that "there was still a chance - maybe the last chance - to save the two-state solution and to salvage peace".

In the meantime he said that Palestinians would urge the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution granting the state of Palestine non-member observer status - though he did not himself mention the word "observer".

Image caption Mr Abbas said Palestinians were determined to continue "peaceful popular resistance"

This is clearly not terribly palatable to Israel or indeed the Americans, though it would almost certainly pass by a large majority. For diplomacy's sake, it may well be postponed until after the US presidential election is out of the way.

There was though a hint of trouble ahead. He spoke of the Palestinians' determination "to continue peaceful popular resistance", earlier commenting that 77% of the Palestinian people were under 35 years of age.

The stoked-up, unrealised aspirations of the young have formed an important element in the upheavals that have beset the region over recent months.

Some analysts fear a Palestinian upheaval could be next and that peaceful resistance met by armed force could so easily turn into a new intifada or uprising.

Drawing a line

Mr Netanyahu had something else on his mind.

He really spoke past Mr Abbas, preferring to offer a basic history lesson asserting the Jewish people's long-standing roots in the region. "The Jewish state," he asserted, "would live forever."

Mr Netanyahu is a man at home in US politics and his message was more attuned to that audience. It was a message of grand simplifications - "the great battle between the modern and the medieval", in other words, between modernity and the forces of radical Islam.

This was the cue for Mr Netanyahu to move to his main focus - the potential threat from a nuclear-armed Iran. The "hour was getting very late," he said. A nuclear-armed Iran could not be deterred.

Rather theatrically he brandished a prop - a diagram of an old-fashioned bomb with lines showing different levels of Iranian uranium enrichment. Out came a marker pen and he drew a red line.

Image caption The West and Israel have deep concerns over Iran's nuclear programme

Such a red line, he insisted, was vital to show Tehran that the world meant business.

He explained that the line had to be drawn at the point where Iran had completed "the medium level of enrichment".

It could reach this point, he asserted, by the middle of next year. Beyond this, Mr Netanyahu argued, it might only be a matter of weeks or months before it had sufficient highly-enriched material for a bomb.

The Israeli prime minister was not interested in relying on intelligence assessments to alert the world to a bomb-making programme.

Enrichment, he insisted, had to be the sole focus because there could be no certainty that other developments would become known. And in any case, enrichment facilities were something that could credibly be seen and targeted, he said.

US President Barack Obama has himself refused to set out a public red line. And if he had to, it would not necessarily be drawn in quite the same way as Mr Netanyahu.

However, for those alarmed at the prospect of a potential Israeli strike against Iran, there was some modest comfort in Mr Netanyahu's words.

He seemed to believe that there was still time to stop Iran by sanctions and diplomatic means. He stressed that setting red lines was not about triggering war but encouraging Iran to back down.

The Israeli prime minister also twice made positive reference to President Obama's own comments and actions.

It was perhaps a realisation that the antipathy between the two leaders was reaching damaging proportions and also maybe a hint that while still favouring the Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, Mr Netanyahu has sampled the political mood in America and is re-balancing himself ahead of a possible second Obama victory.