wrote last week on the inauguration of the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York and the high-level meetings, including two summits, and the General Debate that took place from 19 to 23 September.
Four leaders from the five Permanent Members of the Security Council were absent, namely the leaders of China, France, Russia, and the UK. US President Joe Biden addressed the General Assembly on 19 September, making extensive remarks on questions that have become major international concerns including on the war in Ukraine and the responsibility of Russia in starting the war, accompanied by the promise that the US would support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
These words were welcomed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, attending the UN General Assembly for the first time. Biden also dealt with climate change, more financial support for international economic and financial institutions, and more financing for investment in infrastructure.
Another major issue in his remarks, and this time one much closer to home for us in the region, was peace in the Middle East from the US perspective.
Biden began by linking the building of the Economic Corridor between India, the Middle East, and Europe that was announced on 9 September on the margins of the G20 Summit meeting in India with the efforts of his administration to integrate Israel into the region. He described the G20 agreement as a “groundbreaking effort” and said that it would spur “opportunities and investments” across two continents, adding that the Economic Corridor was part of the policy of his administration to “build a more sustainable, integrated Middle East”.
Biden also said that the US would “continue to work tirelessly to support a just and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians” in establishing two states for two peoples. On the following day, 20 September, he received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, the first meeting between the two men since the latter became prime minister again last December.
It is an open secret in Washington that Biden has not been satisfied with certain policies carried out by the present Israeli government, particularly its judicial reform programme and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Upon receiving Netanyahu, Biden said that we “welcome Bibi, and I hope we can get some things settled today.” The readout of the meeting released by the White House said that Biden had emphasised the need to take “immediate measures” in order to improve the security and economic situation, maintain the viability of a two-state solution, and promote a just and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The readout said that the two leaders had “consulted” on the progress achieved on establishing a more “integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Middle East,” including through efforts to “deepen and expand normalisation” with countries in the region.
It is true that the Biden administration has adopted a more positive attitude towards the Palestinian question in a welcome departure from the pro-Israeli positions adopted by the previous administration of former president Donald Trump. The US under the present administration has shown clear support for the two-state solution from day one, but after three years in office it seems that Biden favours the option of more integration of Israel into the region more than that of working on a credible and serious process paving the way for the actual implementation of the two-state solution on the ground.
In this respect, the present US administration is no different from the previous Republican administration in expanding the so-called “Abraham Accords” of August 2020.
Over the last year, it has been noticeable that the US administration is working on two main objectives in the region, mainly integration and de-escalation. As a result, it came as no surprise when the US TV channel Fox News aired an interview with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) that coincided with the General Debate at the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly in which he talked about the normalisation of relations between his country and Israel.
In his remarks before the General Assembly on 22 September, Netanyahu said in a triumphant tone that his country is “on the cusp” of an historic breakthrough leading to a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia and added that the Abraham Accords heralded the “dawn” of a new age of peace in the region. Surprisingly enough, Fox News then interviewed Netanyahu that same evening, when he said that the “window of opportunity” for an agreement with the Saudis was “the next few months”.
In case “we don’t achieve it” in this period, Netanyahu said, “we might delay it by quite a few years.”
Judging from Biden’s remarks and the two interviews on Fox News referred to above, a new kind of peace in the Middle East is about to materialise, but it will remain a false one if the Israelis keep expanding their settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, their siege of the Gaza Strip remains in place, and their occupation of East Jerusalem continues unchanged.
In the UN General Debate this year, many questions of major interest and concern for the international community have been discussed, among them the situation in the Middle East and prospects for peace in the region. However, for the parties directly concerned with resolving the Palestinian question and establishing a genuine and credible settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the approaches to achieving this still remain wide apart.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly