UN-forgettable

September 30th, 2012

By Jeremy Ben-Ami

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – a lesson Prime Minister Netanyahu and his advisors demonstrated on the world's largest stage this week.

Images of the red pen-wielding Prime Minister and his cartoonish bomb dominated news as world leaders gathered in New York.

Amid the theatrics, however, important words were spoken as well.

President Obama, for instance, delivered a ringing endorsement of the role of free expression in building democracy.

President Morsi of Egypt countered that freedom of expression must be bounded by respect for religion – a view widely held in the broader Muslim world.

This difference in perspective is part of a fascinating debate between democracies grounded in religion emerging in the Arab world and Western-style democracy, so rooted in separation of religion and state.

Sadly, we’re more likely to see this debate play out in simplistic cartoons and videos than in thoughtful speeches and nuanced discussion.

On the issue of Iran, the most significant words were lost in the hubbub around the cartoon: with the President firmly reiterating that there is time and space to resolve the nuclear question through diplomacy, it was Prime Minister Netanyahu who moved his timeline – this time forward to next spring and summer.

Those fearing an “October surprise” or convinced that the Prime Minister would aim to impact the US elections by acting against Iran, can, I believe, rest easier. The thousand words, in this case, bore far more import than the single picture.

So too, even the few words spoken by President Obama on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were significant. In speaking of America’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the President talked of “walking alongside all who are prepared” to make the journey toward a two-state solution.

Compare his choice of metaphor to Mitt Romney‘s talk of “kicking the ball down the field” on this issue. Neither metaphor – punting or companionship – is comforting to those who believe that resolving this conflict requires leadership, determination and persuasion.

The challenge of inaction was reinforced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ tough and combative speech.

His words were hard for many of Israel’s friends to hear. His strident, at times inflammatory, rhetoric will undoubtedly give many cause to say Israel does not have a partner for peace.

However, his speech should not be allowed to blur Abbas’ continued commitment to non-violence, to Israel’s right to exist, and to a two-state formula for ending the conflict.

Ultimately, we have to remember that peace is made not between friends, but between enemies – enemies who share a vision of how to end their conflict.

Kicking the ball down the field is no option for those who want to see a two-state resolution before it’s too late – and simply offering to walk alongside Israelis and Palestinians as they pursue peace on their own is not a policy rooted in reality.

The next US President will have only a brief window for meaningful diplomacy in the months following the election.

It’ll be our job to press for leadership and action from the White House. If we don’t succeed, I’m afraid we’re in for many more sessions at the United Nations filled with harsh rhetoric, simplistic imagery, and little hope of peaceful resolution to the difficult challenges ahead.