As the escalating violence in the West Bank and ongoing clashes in East Jerusalem show, the conflict between Israel and Palestine continues to fester in the absence a viable peace agreement.
With prospects for the resumption of a meaningful peace process any time soon seemingly non-existent, tensions on both sides are leading to increasingly frequent outbreaks of violence. But with numerous Middle Eastern crises crowding out the agenda of this year's general debate of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), talk of one of the world's most intractable conflicts has been noticeably scarce.
Obama did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once during the entirety of his speech. Nor did Vladimir Putin. Nor for that matter did France's François Hollande or the UK's foreign secretary, Philip Hammond. The Palestinians did get honourable mentions from plenty of other heads of state, from the Sultan of Brunei to the Swedish prime minister – whose government became the first EU member to officially recognise Palestine last year.
Even Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country is after all one of the main parties to the conflict, seems to have relegated the Palestinian issue to the category of minor nuisances. Not surprising given the low priority accorded to the Palestinian issue within Israeli public opinion. Three quarters of his speech was instead dedicated to his favourite Quixotic pastime of railing against Iran and the nuclear agreement it recently reached with the P5+1 world powers, and of course his love of American pop culture.
Netanyahu did have some sage advice to offer world leaders for dealing with wayward members of the international community, cautioning his audience that indulging bad behaviour only begets more bad behaviour. Instead he made clear that any country wishing to be treated like a normal country should first act like a normal country. Useful advice indeed.
Although he was talking about, Netanyahu could just of easily have been referring to his own country and the impunity with which it conducts itself towards the Palestinians (as well as in the US Congress). His words could also have been useful talking points for those hoping to explain to Israelis that as long as they maintain their occupation, the salient issue in Israel's bilateral relations will remain the occupation. And this no matter how much Israelis may wish to flaunt the merits of Israel's R&D sector, its arts and culture or LGBT community.
But of course the Palestinian issue was not foremost in the minds of this year's UNGA audience. And with growing political discontent at home where two thirds of Palestinians are now demanding his resignation, President Abbas cut a somewhat lonely and exasperated figure on the UNGA podium. This despite 137 countries having recognised the State of Palestine, and a string of largely symbolic victories over the last year, including the raising of the Palestinian flag at the UN. None of this though has moved Palestinians any closer to independence. President Abbas' speech was therefore more a desperate plea for international help, calling for renewed US (and to a lesser extent European) engagement in solving the conflict.
In an effort to refocus international attention, Abbas threatened to disavow the 1993 Oslo Accords – which Palestinians blame for perpetuating the occupation – if Israel does not start living up to its own obligations, notably by halting settlement expansion and reining in settler violence. Walking away from accords that have underpinned a 20-year-long US-led peace process would indeed have a tremendous, if unpredictable, impact on the current situation, especially if Palestinians dismantle the Palestinian Authority (PA) or end Palestinian security co-operation with Israel.
But few expect President Abbas to implement this threat any time soon. Such action would of course force Israel to re-assume the burden of administering the Palestinian population on a day-to-day basis. But dismantling the PA would also mean dismantling the little of what Palestinians have to show for their two decades of state-building efforts and run counter to their international drive for statehood. Ending security co-operation with Israel would also remove much of the PA's raison d'être for Israel and the international community.
Walking away from the Oslo accords would also mean a serious amount of heartburn for the US Administration and severely damage US-Palestinian relations. This at a time in which US-Israel ties remain particularly strained, and at a time in which the White House is re-evaluating its policy towards the conflict while encouraging Europe in vain to take a tougher line on Israel's settlement enterprise. As such President Abbas is painfully aware that now is not the time for a make-or-break moment.
With no alternative vision for bringing about de-occupation the Palestinian leadership remains firmly wedded to both the two-state solution and a US-led peace process, even though such a configuration has consistently failed. In the meantime any talk of shifting towards a civil rights-based approach against occupation or demanding equal rights within a binational state alongside Jews remains limited to the confines of Palestinian civil society debate.
So long as they remain unwilling to shift away from this paradigm, Palestinian actions should be seen not as a profound strategic shift but rather as a tactical means to bump the Palestinian issue up the priority list up of Western (and Arab) policy makers and renew international peace-making efforts on a basis more favourable for them. This is what the Palestinians had hoped to achieve in pushing for recognition of Palestine in 2012 by the UN General Assembly, Palestinian membership to UNESCO and the opening of ICC proceedings against Israel.
But with little to show for all these efforts, running out of ideas, and faced with growing domestic discontent, threatening to tear up the Oslo agreement remains one of the last cards left for Abbas to play – short of resigning. For now talk of either seems more like a high stakes bluff. Although recent violence may achieve what Abbas has struggled to do of late by forcing some kind of international re-engagement, this would be in the guise of conflict management, rather than conflict resolution.
The more absent a meaningful peace process, the more Abbas will be left to talk the talk. But the less he has to show for his bluster, the more he will come under pressure from his own constituency to play the few cards remaining to him. And here lies a future moment of unintended change: although one should not for now count on Abbas to take the Palestinian liberation movement in a radically new direction, don't be surprised if he does ultimately end up going down a different path for lack of better alternatives.