Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP
A Palestinian holding a national flag climbs the separation barrier during a protest against its construction in the West Bank village of Walajeh, outside Jerusalem, on Friday.
By John Ray, NBC News
TEL AVIV, Israel – In this overheated part of the world, it is often difficult to tell the difference between history and histrionics.
How much is really revolutionary, and how much is merely rhetoric, words that will run into the sands?
For instance, no one can yet tell how the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya will work out. Meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses? Or a genuinely fresh start?
It’s the same with the Palestinian Authority’s decision to seek a United Nations-approved declaration of statehood.
Is this a moment of truth, or just as likely, another weary milestone on a seemingly never-ending road to some kind of final settlement with Israel?
Hope vs. reality
That’s certainly the experience of Palestinian Attalah Tamimi. His face lined by the sun and his crew cut hair gray, he has witnessed many false dawns.
On his wall, there is a photograph of a younger Tamimi as a prisoner in an Israeli jail. And there is another, in the uniform of Palestinian security forces.
The years of fighting followed by peaceful protest and two decades of fruitless negotiations have not won back the land he says has been stolen by Israel.
From a hilltop close to his West Bank home in the village of Nabi Saleh, Tamimi pointed across the valley to the red tiled roofs of a Jewish settlement.
“They have built a swimming pool and a theater over my olive trees. We cannot even go to the well to draw water. The Jews say it’s a holy spring,” he said to me.
So now the United Nations beckons. And Tamimi, like many Palestinians, is caught between hope and reality.
“In some ways it’s as important as 1988 when Yasser Arafat declared our Palestinian state. It is saying we are a nation, but we have never, ever had control of our land,” he said.
“Now I want the United Nations to show that the world is with us. But I know we can never win until the Americans stop supporting Israel.’’
Israelis and Palestinians discuss their views on the Palestinians push for statehood at the U.N.
Showdown at the U.N.
With both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly next Friday, Sept. 23, it looks as if it will be a day of dramatic diplomacy.
But it will likely be a day which in itself decides nothing.
That’s because if a vote to recognize Palestine eventually goes to the Security Council, the U.S., one of five veto-wielding members, will likely veto it. It would be a mistake, some suggest, delivering another blow to America’s reputation in the Arab world as it backs Israel, its closest ally in the region.
Meanwhile, at the General Assembly, which consists of all member states, the Palestinians probably already have enough supporters to win some form of enhanced status, short of nationhood.
Senior Palestinian officials tell me if nothing else, this will raise the morale of their people. It will at the very least shake the dice, they say.
The problem comes for the Palestinian leadership if it does no more than that – if hopes and expectations are raised, but the checkpoints, Israeli troops and settlers remain in place.
Familiar battle for Israel
From an Israeli point of view, it all ties together in a familiar narrative. A Jewish David against their Arab Goliath. A battle they have fought every day since the Jewish State was founded in 1948.
Here’s what Netanyahu had to say about his mission to New York during a press conference on Thursday:
“Now I know that the General Assembly is not a place where Israel gets a fair hearing. I know that the automatic majorities there always rush to condemn Israel and twist truth beyond recognition. But I’ve decided to go there anyway – not to win applause, but to speak the truth to every nation that wants to hear the truth.’’
Echoing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Israelis say the path to peace runs through negotiations in Jerusalem, not confrontation in New York.
That said, it might have helped the Israeli case if their government had come up with some kind of plausible plan over the past year. Instead, they have been painted by the rest of the world as the foot-dragging intransigents; refusing, for example, President Barack Obama’s demands to halt settlements.
Chilly neighborhood for Israel
And now, after the Arab Spring, the diplomatic weather has turned chillier still.
Israel has fallen out with its one-time friend, Turkey, a rising power in the Muslim world whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is touring Arab Spring states and winning friends on the Arab street with an anti-Israeli zeal matched only by his enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause.
“It's time to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations,” Erdogan declared to an enthusiastic audience in Cairo. “Let's raise the Palestinian flag and let that flag be the symbol of peace and justice in the Middle East.”
Egpyt, with a treaty dating back to 1979, is Israel’s most powerful neighbor and therefore its most important Arab partner in peace.
But now, there are many in the maelstrom of forces unleashed by the uprising who are demanding that the treaty get torn up. Some of them even ransacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo a week ago.
The Israeli response has been unusually muted and measured. Why? Because this is the axis that Israel sees as truly vital to its security.
History is at stake – let’s not wreck it with histrionics, you know they’re reasoning.
Related link: Palestinian vote: What is it? Why now?