Listening to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas address the UN General Assembly last week, I thought I heard a faint echo in the chamber. I heard it again when President Obama argued that he was for establishing a Palestinian state before he was against it.
I thought for a moment that it was the shade of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the liberal Democrat who in 1975 stood up in the General Assembly to pronounce its "Zionism is racism" resolution an obscenity.
But when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke, I recognized the voice I heard in the background. Netanyahu chose to stand on the shoulders of a diminutive woman: the late, great, Jeane Kirkpatrick.
In tones that ranged from combative to conciliatory to exasperated, the Israeli leader challenged the members of the UN to, for once, impose the same standards by which they judge Israel on the Palestinians. Why not, he argued, hold the Palestinians and Israelis to the same standards of conduct, and morality?
Netanyahu recited a brief version of the United Nations' abuses of Israel. The 1975 "Zionism is racism" resolution. The 1980 peace agreement with Egypt that was denounced in the UN. He said, "And it's here year after year that Israel is unjustly singled out for condemnation. It's singled out for condemnation more often than all the nations of the world combined. Twenty-one out of the 27 General Assembly resolutions condemn Israel -- the one true democracy in the Middle East."
Not only is Israel condemned routinely, Netanyahu said, some of the worst despots, dictators and terrorists are elevated to prominence in the UN: Saddam Hussein's Iraq as leader of the UN disarmament conference, Gaddafi's Libya chairing the Commission on Human Rights, and now Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon presiding over the Security Council.
It is a blindness to morality, an abandonment of epistemological standards that distinguish between freedom and slavery, between terrorism and democracy, that Netanyahu argued against. It is the same moral blindness that Jeane Kirkpatrick condemned as "the sin of moral equivalence."
Almost three decades ago, Kirkpatrick argued with intellectual precision that the Soviets had undermined the semantic rules by which people and their nations had been judged. She said that it had been important that an educated person found it important and persuasive to distinguish between the concept of civilization set forth in the U.S. constitution and the alternative concepts of the Soviet "constitution." But, she said, by their ideological and semantic attacks, the Soviets had managed to create a sense of equality. In 1985, she wrote:
I believe that anyone who fails to see a difference between Grenada and Afghanistan is not only seriously mistaken but very seriously confused, and that their confusion is a direct consequence of the Soviets' colossally effective assault on the realms of value and meaning which our civilization holds dear.
What Kirkpatrick saw three decades ago in the Soviets' ideological war (which Ronald Reagan won) is what Netanyahu sees now in the ideological war the Palestinians are winning. The sin of moral equivalence in the UN -- and among ideological leftists such as President Obama -- compels the UN and the left to see the Palestinians and the Israelis as equals.
If the Palestinians cannot achieve that equivalence, they cannot isolate and delegitimize Israel. And if they cannot isolate and delegitimize it, they cannot achieve their goal which is to destroy it.
Preceding Netanyahu, Abbas claimed that the Palestinians had adhered to every international standard, to the terms of all their agreements with Israel, and rejected violence and terrorism in all its forms. He claimed, repeatedly, that the Palestinians' demands were legitimated by many UN resolutions, earning them a "more effective role for the United Nations in working to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in our region that ensures the inalienable, legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people as defined by the resolutions of international legitimacy of the United Nations."
Let's remember who the Palestinians are, and who Abbas chooses to ally them with. Only then can their claim to "legitimacy" be judged.
When reports of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were broadcast that day, Reuters filmed and CNN broadcast Palestinians in East Jerusalem dancing in the streets. The Palestinians tried to suppress the footage and then claimed it was false. It wasn't .
They have yet to live up to any agreement they've made with Israel. And they have always been an anti-democratic terrorist force. Yasser Arafat's export of Palestinian terrorism to Lebanon first undermined and later destroyed the Lebanese democracy in 1969.
Only four months ago, Mahmoud Abbas signed a "unity agreement" with the Hamas terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip. The Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and bars any compromise.
The differences between the Palestinians and the Israelis are as stark as the Cold War differences between us and the Soviets. The moral equivalency is as false -- and as dangerous -- now as it was then.
President Obama also spoke at the UN last week. His speech garnered almost as little attention as it deserved, which is to say none at all. The only notable element was Obama's reaffirmation of his belief in the moral equivalency of the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Obama's sin of moral equivalence is not new. It is a foundation stone of his entire foreign policy. He has repeated that sin so often on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it is a cliché.
This time, it was almost different. Obama seemed to be saying that he was for a Palestinian state before he was against it (or at least before the Republicans won the NY-9 special election). And despite the implicit threat of vetoing the Palestinian application in the UN Security Council, Obama once again resorted to the same old sin.
He said, "Each side has legitimate aspirations. And that's part of what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in each other's shoes, each side can see the world through the other's eyes. That's what we should be encouraging. That's what we should be promoting."
This is the President of the United States, comprehending his role as superpower head of state to be a combination of high school guidance counselor and 1960s' folk singer. Hey, Netanyahu: walk a mile in Abbas's shoes.
Netanyahu has been in the UN too many times to either ignore the danger it poses or to take it too seriously. Twenty-seven years ago, before becoming Israel's UN ambassador, he got some advice from a prominent rabbi. As Netanyahu recounted it, "He said to me, you'll be serving in a house of many lies. And then he said, remember that even in the darkest place, the light of a single candle can be seen far and wide."
Today, the House of Many Lies will take up the Palestinian statehood application in the Security Council. The debate, long or short, will end with the application failing either because of a U.S. veto or because it has failed to get enough votes before the veto needs to be cast.
And while this is going on, in the economic leper colony that calls itself the "Eurozone," the members will feverishly debate whether Greece's nose will fall off before Portugal and Spain lose their ears. Russians will cheer the new candidacy of Vladimir Putin to succeed the placeholder who succeeded Putin as Russian president. (And, as in the good old days, those who don't cheer will be found beaten to a pulp in Moscow alleyways).
Here at home we'll seek solace from the Obamalaise by speculating about whether Rick Perry's awful debate appearances will bring his campaign to a premature end and wondering if Congress will force a government shut-down. Few will pay attention to the UN.
When I was researching my book on the UN several years ago, I had the good fortune to interview British historian Paul Johnson who -- with his wife -- received me graciously in their London home. His verdict on the UN was compelling. "The UN is now a central problem for the world, because we take too much notice of it." Fortunately, that truth is eroding.