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An Apocalyptic Air of Approaching Peril: Zionism at the United Nations

[Scene from I, Crocodile, by Fred Marcellino (Michael Di Capua Books, 1999)] [Scene from I, Crocodile, by Fred Marcellino (Michael Di Capua Books, 1999)]

Bibi sauntered. He swaggered. He spoke freely, seemingly unguided by any text. He irreverently made circles with his fingers. He called the group of diplomats and interns assembled in front of him actors in “a theater of the absurd.” He proudly modeled his thick coat of indifference just as he called the United Nations, a “house of lies.” Indeed, so capable was the UN in presenting the false as true, Bibi gestured assuredly, they could go so far to declare that the sun set in the West.

Realizing that the sun did in fact set in the West, Bibi calmly stepped back from the rhetorical precipice and began what he came for: to speak the truth: the truth about Israel, the truth about a Palestinian state, and the truth about civilization.

For good measure, he informed the audience that he had just laid a wreath on the September 11 memorial; he was deeply moved. He went on to provide the General Assembly with his philosophical understanding of the challenges the enlightened world faces from its benighted other. Those who worried that eight months of popular revolt in the Middle East signaled the final nail in the coffin of the shallow, essentialist readings of the late Samuel Huntington were comforted. Bibi assured the world that the West and East were still on their way to an inevitable civilizational clash. Echoing Huntington, Bibi reminded his audience that the cold war was well and gone (thanks for the update) as was the very idea of politics, now replaced, he explained, by religious strife. The ugly head of the real, mortal enemy, the “malignancy” threatening civilization as we know it was none other than the “insatiable crocodile” of militant Islam.

Had the years dulled Bibi’s capacity to creatively conjure the monstrous embodiment of the other? A crocodile? Really?

Bibi persisted. He dug. He blew air into the figurative corpses of the September 11 decade. Leaping from the clash of civilization to the ever-delayed “final status” location of Israel’s never declared borders, Bibi then unearthed the old “constructive ambiguity” argument about Resolution 242. He explained (for those of us who have not been following this inane debate since 1967) that the United Nations resolution specified Israeli withdrawal from territories not the territories. Thus armed with the powerful weapon of a definite article Bibi, like many before him, justified the now century long denial of Palestinians’ inalienable right to self-determination.

Bibi went on to channel his predecessors, echoing Abba Ebban that day in 1967 when the Foreign Minister stated:

In short, there was peril for Israel wherever it looked. Its manpower had been hastily mobilized. Its economy and commerce were beating with feeble pulses. Its streets dark and empty. There was an apocalyptic air of approaching peril. And Israel faced the danger alone.

Bibi revived the idea of an island of fear; a “tiny country, surrounded by people sworn to its destruction and armed to the teeth by Iran.”

He then effortlessly named the West Bank “Judea and Samaria,” without which, he pleaded, “Israel is all of nine miles wide….That’s about two-thirds the length of Manhattan. It’s the distance between Battery Park and Columbia University.” Having extended his hand to the Egyptians, Jordanians, Iranians, Lebanese, Syrians, and even the Palestinians, Bibi went on to disparage them: “And don’t forget that the people who live in Brooklyn and New Jersey are considerably nicer than some of Israel’s neighbors.”

Bibi did not utter the word “Zionism” at any point in his forty-minute speech. As he sliced through the UN’s “unjust condemnation” of Israel he indirectly defined Zionism as the “age-old yearning of my people to restore our national life in our ancient biblical homeland.”

It was this national life, this “age-old yearning” that Bibi explained was under threat. “We just don’t want the Palestinians to try to change the Jewish character of the state.” Thus, the Palestinians’ yearning (of the last sixty-three years) to restore their national life on their homeland and realize their right to return was in Bibi’s speech a “fantasy” that “we want the Palestinians to give up.”

What was most surprising about Bibi’s performance was neither the arrogance nor the condescension. It was not his confident and relentless commitment to expansionist policies that have and will continue to uproot, occupy, oppress, imprison, and attempt to erase the Palestinians. It was not even the gestural and rhetorical assurances that the only two states in the world that truly matter are the United States and Israel. There is nothing new in any of this.

What was surprising was the flaccid emptiness of Bibi’s ideology. When he said: “in Israel peace never wanes,” what he meant to say was that Zionism, or so he hoped, never wanes. But his performance in front of the world personified that very waning.  It is true that the members of the US Congress obsequiously stood and clapped when Netanyahu mourned the “painful compromises” of making “peace” with the Palestinians since: “In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.” But the General Assembly was not so servile.

Indeed, Mahmoud Abbas far outranked Bibi in argument and reception. This outranking had nothing to do with charisma, a quality that Abbas could never be accused of possessing. It had to do with words. Abbas delivered the language of the Palestinian opposition. In voicing the terms: apartheid, ethnic cleansing, the racist separation wall, he, if only momentarily, called the Oslo process what it is: an intensification of Israeli occupation that has pulverized Palestinian land and society. He used the very words that critics and organizers have deployed against the Palestinian Authority, in its role as the subcontractor of the Israeli occupation.

But Bibi used old words. And they fell flat. His confidence, his righteousness, and his indifference were so ripe that he did not resort to ideology or argument. In his derision for international opinion, he was outmoded and out of step. He declared the death of politics at the very moment when people all over the world (including his very own constituency) are taking to the streets demanding social and economic justice. But it is perhaps this constituency that is most to blame for the flaccidity of Bibi’s rhetoric, for they have no words to oppose the occupation.

Bibi’s attempts to continue the long Israeli tradition of presenting an earnest David against the big bad Arab-Muslim-Palestinian Goliath won him no love at the UN. The audience was left instead with the image of that malignant crocodile and his insatiable appetite. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any of Bibi’s predecessors offering a two thousand year old ring with their name on it as evidence to support the last one hundred years of colonialism.

5 comments for "An Apocalyptic Air of Approaching Peril: Zionism at the United Nations"

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Well written piece, although I disagree with the importance given to Bibi's speech and the entire UN performance. When has the UN general assembly shown love for Israel? Bibi could speak the way he did because he seems to think it does not matter. And I would argue that he's right. Abbas uses words like apartheid because he is bankrupt, and so he'll do anything to get Palestinian support. He uses the word apartheid not as a turn to a new discourse but as a cynical gesture. I think you have to read their speeches as one performance not two. In other words, akhra min ba3ed ;)

Joe wrote on October 22, 2011 at 07:02 AM
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Great article...I watched his whole speech on the UN website and his utter condescension and patronizing tone towards his audience is quite evident throughout his defense of ethnic cleansing and historical injustice.

Norman Koerner wrote on October 22, 2011 at 12:57 PM
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Nevermind that 'Netanyahu' was not that long ago 'Mileikowsky', meaning his argument to justify the last 100 years of colonialism falls flat at its utterance. Good article, keep the lyrical writing up.

nawi wrote on October 24, 2011 at 05:01 AM
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It is well written and obviously Abbas made a speech for the freedom of his people to a receptive UN audience while Netanyahu attacked the hand that has been adverse to feeding Israel. The two each spoke to their own people, bypassing each other and any process to reach out and connect and to try yet again to negotiate an agreement. In playing to their own audiences they are hardening the lines between them which were made more clear as a result of the Shalit deal which confirms that violence pays and non-violence doesn't seem to lead anywhere. As for Oslo, it offered much, but the offer faded as reality on both sides fed a violence that has kept, (and keeps) the war alive.

Larry Snider wrote on October 28, 2011 at 11:30 AM
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Well written article. There is a reason for Bibi's condescension, if not disrespect, of his audience: Arrogance. There is a saying common among Israelis, especially those in power, that the only language the Arabs understand is force and power. With unlimited US support--blind support, in fact, the last of which is Obama's speech at the UN-- this Israeli arrogance has extended beyond the Arabs and to the world over, including the UN. Like Sherene said, the only states that matter is Israel and the US. And as long as our politicians, including our presidents, can be bought or slaughtered like sheep by the Israeli lobby in this country, Israel's arrogance will persist and grow. Too bad for the world, especially for Israel to save her from herself, Eisenhower is not alive!

ahmad a. sbaiti wrote on October 31, 2011 at 10:46 AM

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