— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2009
“Israel’s settlement moratorium has made a difference on the ground and improved the atmosphere for talks. And our position on this issue is well known. We believe that the moratorium should be extended.”
— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2010
“Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 21, 2011
Call it the education of President Obama. Every year, he has gone before the United Nations and spoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every year, his vision has gotten narrower and his language less sweeping. Now he is no longer just trying to forge peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but trying to stave off diplomatic disaster as the Palestinians pursue a statehood bid.
In diplomacy, words have meaning and consequences. Let’s look at the full arc of the president’s statements, from criticizing Israeli settlements in 2009 to not even mentioning the issue this year.
The 2009 speechObama was still an international rock star when he gave his maiden speech, and so — somewhat unusual for a speech from the U.N. podium — his remarks on Israel and the Palestinians were interrupted frequently by applause, including the sentence on Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
But Obama’s policy on the Middle East was already in trouble even before he first stood before world leaders. An ill-conceived demand by the administration that Israel halt all settlement activity had led the Palestinians to balk at any direct talks with Israel until settlement expansion was actually ended.
In order to have something positive to say, Obama had pushed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to attend a three-way meeting at the United Nations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the day before giving the speech. “Yesterday, I had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas,” Obama announced. “We have made some progress.”
This was actually untrue. Obama’s point during the meeting was that it was time to start negotiations — “permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon”— but he had little leverage to persuade either the Israelis to immediately freeze settlement growth or the Palestinians to return to the talks. A few months later, the Israelis agreed to a nine-month, partial moratorium on settlements, but the Palestinians rejected it as too little and too late.
The 2009 speech was noteworthy for other reasons. Obama repeatedly balanced the two sides against each other. George W. Bush did this also, especially in his 2006 address to the United Nations, but Obama’s language was unique for its length and detail, including a critique of past U.S. diplomacy. For instance:
“To break the old patterns, to break the cycle of insecurity and despair, all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private. The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. And nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over constructive willingness to recognize Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security.”
Obama ended his remarks with an image of an “Israeli girl in Sderot” and a “Palestinian boy in Gaza,” saying “these are all God’s children.”
The 2010 speech
Once again, the president tried to rearrange the diplomatic chairs so he could have something to announce at the United Nations. Just weeks before the General Assembly meeting, the president hosted Netanyahu and Abbas at the White House to launch direct talks between the parties.
But the negotiations were already in deep trouble, because Israel planned to lift its settlement moratorium at the end of the month, and the Palestinians had made it clear they would end the talks if the moratorium ended. The administration had tried to keep the talks going with happy talk — U.S. envoy George Mitchell misleadingly told reporters that “the two leaders are not leaving the tough issues to the end of their discussions” — but it was clear the talks were doomed unless a way around the impasse over settlements was found.
Obama put his prestige on the line when he spoke to world leaders, essentially demanding that Israel extend the moratorium.
“We believe that the moratorium should be extended. We also believe that talks should press on until completed. Now is the time for the parties to help each other overcome this obstacle. Now is the time to build the trust — and provide the time — for substantial progress to be made. Now is the time for this opportunity to be seized, so that it does not slip away.”
Obama added that “true security for the Jewish state requires an independent Palestine.” But he also said: “It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakable opposition of the United States.”
This time, Obama concluded with an image of “a young girl in Gaza” and a “young boy in Sderot” — reversing the sexes but not the cities mentioned in the 2009 speech.
Then in an expression of hope that would come to haunt him, the president declared: “This time we should reach for what’s best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
The 2011 speech
This time, there were no announcements to be made, only a diplomatic fumble to be avoided.
Abbas, stung by what he viewed as Obama’s inability to make progress, earlier this year announced he would pursue a vote on statehood at the United Nations. He mischievously cited Obama’s 2010 address as inspiration, calling it the “Obama promise” and saying: “if he said it, he must have meant it.”
Abbas was particularly angered by the administration’s veto in February of a U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing Israeli settlements as illegal, since he believed it was Obama who had made the settlements an issue in the first place.
“It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas told Newsweek, noting he had agreed to the president’s plan. “We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”
But facing declining approval ratings and scathing attacks by Republican presidential rivals for supposedly abandoning Israel, the president apparently decided there was little he could offer the Palestinians in this speech. The administration has already pledged to veto a statehood bid at the Security Council.
Most strikingly, in this speech there is not even a glancing mention of settlements. This time, Obama also did not bury a reference to an “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security in a jab at its “failure to respect legitimate claims” of Palestinians (2009) or say that “true security” for Israel required a Palestinian state (2010). Instead, he delivered a full-throated endorsement of Israel’s security needs, without any caveats.
“America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.”
Indeed, the balance between the Palestinians and the Israelis that Obama had sought in his previous speeches is missing this year. Obama followed the statement on Israel’s security with a long paragraph describing Israel’s dangerous neighborhood and the “centuries of exile and persecution” of the Jewish people. There was no equivalent section in the speech for the Palestinians.
Obama ended with yet another reference to children, though this time he did not mention any cities: “The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live lives of peace and security and dignity and opportunity.”
Finally, this year’s address also included recognition that the White House’s focus on bringing a “deliverable” every year to the United Nations may have been misguided.
“Now, I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. I assure you, so am I,” Obama said. “Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
Usually, in speeches before the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. presidents have kept the section of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict confined to a few sentences. Obama might be tempted to do that next year.