The most immediately striking thing about President Obama’s speech today at the United Nations was the contrast in tone between it and his May 19 "Arab Spring" speech. I commended that speech at the time for its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for what it demonstrated about Obama’s understanding of the way that the irresolution of the conflict continues to negatively impact U.S. interests and relationships in the region, and how this would only increase as a result of the Arab awakening.
Addressing the issue in today’s speech, Obama gave a nod to the first part of that analysis — "Now I know that for many in this hall, one issue stands as a test for these principles – and for American foreign policy: the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians." — but nothing to the second. Indeed, perhaps the most disappointing thing in the speech was the way in which it attempted to cordon off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the broader shifts in the region, as if this were remotely possible. The May 19 speech was a courageous recognition of coming change, and a bold step toward adapting American leadership to those changes. Today’s was a step toward increased American isolation and irrelevance.
While Obama made a stirring and important statement regarding the security threats with which Israel lives, he made no similar statement about the Palestinians, nor any recognition that it is Palestinians, not Israelis, who are living under military occupation. And he certainly gave nothing to the Palestinian leadership that might help them justify to their public the sort of stand-down that he’s been pressuring them for. It’s hard to see how already-embattled Palestinian moderates don’t come away from the UN weaker and with even less political legitimacy than they had before. That is, to say the least, not a good thing for the goal of two states.
Having repeatedly and rightly declared the status quo in Israel-Palestine "unsustainable," the administration’s efforts at the UN this past week, capped off by the president’s speech today, appeared as little more than an effort to preserve that status quo, at significant diplomatic expense and at considerable cost to America’s global standing. It was, in other words, probably the best demonstration possible for why the Palestinians decided to go to the UN in the first place.