Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke past one another in addressing the UN General Assembly, barely touching on the same issues. While the two leaders delivered passionate remarks within minutes of one another, they spoke to divergent future objectives. Their speeches highlighted the challenge of bringing the two leaders together into a meaningful dialogue.
Whereas Abbas' target audience was the assembled countries of the United Nations, Netanyahu's audience was one country in particular: the United States. This reflects different strategic priorities for each leader: For Abbas, the stated key objective today is Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. For Netanyahu, the focus is the need for a clear and more robust threat to confront Iran's ongoing nuclear enrichment program.
Each leader articulated core requests: Abbas asked the United Nations to adopt a resolution laying out the basis for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu called for the placement of a clear "red line" on Iran's nuclear weapons program, highlighting his core difference with the Obama administration, which explicitly refuses to enunciate a clear red line or timeline.
Both leaders were vague about their own intended next steps, though Abbas offered slightly more clarity than Netanyahu on this score. Abbas pledged to continue efforts to obtain UN membership for Palestine, saying that he had begun intensive consultations with member states with the aim of a General Assembly vote during the UN session just launched. This formulation provides Abbas time to see what, if anything, the international community will do before he decides to put Palestine's membership to a vote in the General Assembly. In contrast, Netanyahu's "or-else" was both unstated but well known: Failure for the United States to either strike Iran or articulate a red line that prevents Iran from moving toward nuclear weapons capabilities will trigger an Israeli military strike.
Stylistically, both leaders pointed fingers with blistering rhetoric: Abbas accused Israel of a policy of "ethnic cleansing," "colonization," entrenching a "system of apartheid against the Palestinian people," and of "promising the Palestinian people a new catastrophe, a new Nakba." Netanyahu accused radical Islamists of "wanting to draw humanity to dogma and conflict" and spoke of a current clash between "modernity and barbaric medievalism."
With Abbas' focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Netanyahu's concentration on Iran, both leaders have in effect thrown the ball back into the United States' court. Abbas seeks results from Israel or the United Nations, but believes that ultimately Washington holds the keys. Netanyahu seeks a change in Iranian behavior, but shares the sense that the key decision-maker resides in the White House. Whomever emerges as U.S. president on November 6 will be forced to find a way to reconcile these competing Israeli and Palestinian priorities. Otherwise, Abbas and Netanyahu are each likely to pursue paths that conflict with current U.S. approaches.