The 66th UN General Assembly: If You Were There

From Ahmadinejad to Erdogan to Abbas to Netanyahu, a first-hand account of the characters—and the script—that shaped UN Week in New York.

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Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers his address to the 66th UN General Assembly on Sept. 22. Credit: EPA/JUSTIN LANE.

Picture yourself sitting in the visitor’s gallery of the General Assembly hall at the United Nations Headquarters. You look over the balcony ledge, at a half-empty room filled with long tables and placards of dozens of countries—some you’ve never heard of. Suddenly your gaze falls directly below you, on the back of a man who appears to be sitting alone.

Hunched over, meek and small, he listens respectfully to the speaker addressing the assembly. An escort arrives and whispers something in his ear, and as he turns to face her you realize—you’ve been staring at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ahmadinejad flashes his escort a warm grin, and rises to follow her backstage. Almost instantly, a dozen members of his entourage pop up to accompany him, and it strikes you that Ahmadinejad, the embodiment of all that threatens to destroy the West, is a surprisingly tiny man.

On his way backstage, he stops only to jovially embrace and kiss a member of the Oman delegation. Soon, he is called to the stage, and although it seems to be a typical part of protocol, receives applause upon entering.

Almost inaudibly, he begins to address the assembly. For the first few minutes, the speech rejects all notions of who this man is supposed to be. Softly, he mentions with concern the famine in Somalia and floods in Pakistan. He speaks of peace, and its sorry absence in the world. “Wars, mass murder, poverty, socio-economic political crisis continue to infringe upon the rights and sovereignty of nations,” he says. He lists statistics on disparities between rich and poor across the globe and in the States, “3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day…40 percent of the world’s poorest populations share 5% of the global income.” 

20 Reasons

Ahmadinejad claims that “those who dominate and run centers of global economic power” shed the blame of the world’s issues. Then, in the same soothing tone with which he began, and with a lullaby-like rhythm, lists 20 reasons explaining the United States’ lead role in creating the world’s problems. His transition from a message of peace to condemnation is so subtle, in fact, that you only realize the subject matter has changed by point #3.

Among these reasons, Ahmadinejad accuses, is the United States’ responsibility for triggering both world wars and the current global economic recession, as well as using Sept. 11 as a pretext to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. He finishes his list, and beseeches the crowd, “do these arrogant powers really have the competency and ability to run and govern the world?” No delegations have yet left.

Ahmadinejad then brings up the holocaust, and as if on command, dozens of delegations rise and file out of the hall. Many remain, including Iceland, Kuwait, and Kyrgyzstan. He demands that if some “European countries still use the holocaust after six decades as the excuse to pay fines or ransom to the Zionists”, then the United States should pay equal reparations to the ancestors of slaves and formerly colonized nations.

Ahmadinejad continues to spew venom at the United States for 20 minutes, calling into question the “mysterious” circumstances surrounding 9/11 and the subsequent assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

He leaves the stage with a salute to “love, freedom, justice, and knowledge,” amidst applause.

Making Demands of Israel

Later that day, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, addresses the assembly. Erdogan’s speech is as impassioned as Ahmadinejad’s was calm, and he wastes no time in tearing into Israel. He names the Arab-Israeli conflict as the “greatest impediment to the realization of [the United Nation’s] ideal,” and asks the delegates whether they have a double standard in their policies towards Israel.

“It’s Israel that…has the atom bomb and there’s no sanction against that. But even if there is a whisper of such a possibility emerging elsewhere in the region there is an effort to prevent this from happening, and I ask you whether this is justice, whether this is fair?” Erdogan asks.

Each mention of Israel seems to increase his volume, until he is all but screaming. “This country takes steps every day, which instead of paving the way for peace, builds new barriers preventing peace,” he exclaims.

Throughout his speech, Erdogan repeatedly puts the onus on Israel to create peace, underlining Palestinian victimhood, and reaffirming Turkish support to a state of Palestine.

Erdogan’s voice crescendos as he mentions the flotilla crisis in 2010, “our demands from Israel are still clear,” he states firmly, “Israel must apologize, pay compensation to the families of our martyrs, and lift the blockade on Gaza.”

Erodgan soon switches the topic to Syria, delivering its government a light slap on the wrist in comparison to his tirade against Israel. “What is going on in Syria at the moment gives us great cause for concern,” he says, highlighting that murdering your people is no way to govern a country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the 66th UN General Assembly an Friday, responding to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: EPA/JUSTIN LANE.

The Big Day

Friday, Sept. 23 is the big day—the day when Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the PLO, delivers his bid for Palestinian Statehood. The energy in the General Assembly hall is piercing. Both the visitor’s gallery and the hall itself are packed, with overflow crowds in the wings, a pleasure most likely only enjoyed by President Obama.

The president of the 66th session of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, is interrupted in his introduction by roaring applause, hoots, hollers, and whistles from the crowd. Abbas stands proudly to the side of the stage.

After nearly a minute of a standing ovation, Abbas approaches the podium. He launches into what is commonly described as the Palestinian narrative, the Palestinian version of the history of Israel. His speech paints Palestinians as the victims, wrongfully thrown from their land in the “Al-Naqba,” or catastrophe, of 1948, and consistently striving for peace and negotiations in the 60 years since.

The core issue behind the conflict, Abbas states, is “that the Israeli government refuses to commit to terms of reference for the negotiations, and frantically continues to intensify building settlements on the future state of Palestine.”

“This policy,” he continues, “is the primary cause of the collapse of the peace process.”

At this point, a scuffle erupts in the visitor’s gallery. Not much is visible, but it is apparent that a man is steadfastly attempting to gain entry, and is being physically restrained by a number of security officials. The scuffle lasts for a few minutes, distracting everyone in the visitor’s gallery and many in the hall below. Abbas continues undeterred. 

It soon becomes clear that this man was Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, and members of the Turkish delegation walk out in a huff below. The New York Times later reported that Erdogan had been in a meeting near the visitor’s gallery, and upon learning that Abbas was addressing the assembly, rushed in to catch his speech, only to be intercepted by security (as he did not have the appropriate credentials to enter). The altercation ended with one security guard in the hospital, the suspension of half a dozen others, and an apology to the Turkish Prime Minister from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The hall quiets in time for a warning from Abbas, “I caution and I caution allowed, this settlement policy threatens to also undermine the structure of the Palestinian national authority and its existence, in addition we now face the imposition of new conditions…conditions that will transform the raging conflict…into a religious conflict.”

Abbas pauses, creating a moment of anticipation. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he begins again, “in 1974 our deceased leader Yasser Arafat came to this hall…,” and is interrupted by uproarious applause, “came to this hall and assured the Members of the General Assembly of our affirmative pursuit for peace, urging the United Nations to realize the inalienable national rights of the Palestinian people, stating: ‘Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand’,” Abbas emphasizes again, “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

He continues, in the same formal manner, to call on Israel to release its political prisoners, to assure that his government, as well as the Palestinian people, will “adhere to the renouncement of violence,” and states that the PLO is ready to negotiate.

He describes the Palestinian people as a ”defenseless people, armed only with their dreams, courage, hope, and slogans in the face of bullets, tanks, tear gas, and bulldozers,” and continues to accuse Israel of various injustices.

In the climax of his speech, Abbas informs the crowd that before his statement, he submitted an application to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for the admission of Palestine “on the basis of the borders of 1967 with [Jerusalem] as its capital as a full member of the United Nations.” The hall erupts in applause, cheers, and a standing ovation.

Abbas raises a copy of this application to the cheering crowd, allowing an occasional smile to seep through his stern exterior.

Abbas concludes with an address to the hall for its support in his bid for statehood, and once again receives applause and a standing ovation from countless delegates including Iceland, Luxembourg, Indonesia, and Iceland.

The hall is visibly electrified, delivering 13 rounds of applause overall, including three standing ovations, during Abbas’ 40-minute speech.

With Japan and Bhutan serving as a buffer between them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enters the stage to deliver his address to a now significantly emptier hall.

Netanyahu speaks firmly but casually, as if to friends, occasionally delivering a joke or two. He seems exasperated, tired, but maintains his composure.

He calls out the United Nations on its hypocrisy, in its tendency to name Israel as the villain and casting “real villains in leading roles: Gadhafi's Libya chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights; Saddam's Iraq headed the UN Committee on Disarmament.”

Netanyahu emphasizes that peace is a prerequisite to Palestinian statehood, not its outcome, and that “after a peace agreement is signed, Israel will not be the last country to welcome Palestine to the United Nations, we will be first,” he says.

“We’ve tried it, and it hasn’t worked,” he answers to Abbas’ claim that withdrawing Israeli settlements would remove the last impediment to peace, naming Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan in 2005 as an example. “We gave the keys of Gaza to President Abbas,” Netanyahu continues, “…but ladies and gentlemen, we didn't get peace. We got war. We got Iran, which through its proxy Hamas promptly kicked out the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority collapsed in a day—in one day.”

Netanyahu further raises concern over Abbas’ proclamation that the core of the issue is the settlements, explaining the conflict existed prior to settlement building, and that the settlements Abbas must be “talking about are Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, and Be’er Sheva.”

He corrects, saying “the core of the conflict is the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state in any border.”

Netanyahu describes Israel’s precarious situation, its geographic size and placement, its rightful claim to the land, and reassures that “Israel is prepared to make painful sacrifices.”

Netanyahu reaches the pinnacle of his address with a request to Abbas to meet him that very day, at the United Nations, to begin the negotiation process.

“Who’s there to stop us? What is there to stop us? If we genuinely want peace, what is there to stop us from meeting about peace?”

Soon after he concludes, and walks off the stage as casually and strongly as he entered. 

Masha Rifkin is the Managing Editor of JNS.

Posted on September 20, 2011 and filed under World.