NEW YORK -- Armed with unfiltered criticism for the United Nations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an aggressive speech to the international body's annual gathering in New York on Thursday, charging its members with hypocrisy in their treatment of Israel and with failure to contain extremism across the wider Middle East.
With defensive rhetoric, he targeted the assembly for passing more resolutions against Israel for its handling of the Palestinians last year than against the government of Syria, which has presided over a war claiming the lives of over 300,000 people. He criticized member states for "encouraging Palestinian rejectionism" instead of direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions, one day after a Palestinian flag was raised at UN headquarters.
And yet the most poignant moment of the speech involved no remarks at all, as Netanyahu, in his seventh UN General Assembly address, asked the body if it had forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust just seventy years since its founding.
He quoted from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from its president and its military commanders, all reiterating a familiar pledge: Israel, a state where six million Jews reside, must be annihilated, sooner rather than later.
"Seventy years after the murder of six million Jews, Iran's rulers promise to destroy my country, murder my people," Netanyahu said. "And the response from this body— the response from nearly every one of the governments represented here— has been absolutely nothing. Utter silence. Deafening silence."
Silence followed the charge as the prime minister surveyed the room with a stoic stare. None spoke or moved in the audience as Netanyahu, at the lectern, remained quiet for nearly a minute.
"As someone who knows that history, I refuse to be silent," he finally said to applause from the hall. Repeating a line he has delivered in Washington, he added: "The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies— those days are over."
The speech was Netanyahu's first major address since the Iran nuclear deal survived a debate over its merits in the US Congress. Its architects from the United States, Europe, Russia and China met to discuss implementation of the deal earlier in the week.
"Ladies and gentlemen, check your enthusiasm at the door," he said of the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. "It makes war more likely."
He warned that international investors were preparing to flood a "radical theocracy with weapons and cash" and warned that, "when bad behavior is rewarded, it only gets worse." The deal, he said, amounts to a marriage between radical Islam and nuclear power.
"Under this deal, If Iran doesn’t change its behavior— in fact, if it becomes even more dangerous in the years to come— the most important constraints will still be automatically lifted by year 10 and by year 15. That would place a militant Islamic terror regime weeks away from having the fissile material for an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs," he said. "That just doesn't make any sense."
And the JCPOA, he continued, has already led Iran to rapidly expand its network of terrorist proxies worldwide and spend "billions of dollars on weapons and satellites." As an example of that network, Netanyahu detailed a well-armed cell of Hezbollah that has been identified in Cyprus, and warned that the organization— listed by the United States and European Union as a terrorist organization— was setting up similar cells in the Western hemisphere.
"We will continue to act to stop the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syrian territory," he said. Israel has periodically struck convoys traversing Syrian territory, but future missions have been complicated by a growing presence of Russian forces in the region.
While acknowledging that the deal is proceeding toward implementation— he asked the UN to enforce the JCPOA with "more rigor" than the six past Security Council resolutions on the nuclear issue that Iran had "systematically violated"— Netanyahu retained Israel's option to defend itself against Iranian aggression.
"We have, we are and we will" defend ourselves, Netanyahu said, once again earning some applause.
Netanyahu personally engaged in a bruising battle on Capitol Hill over the deal, pitted against US President Barack Obama, who lobbied for its survival. The support of only one third of one house in Congress was required to preserve the agreement, and 42 senators ultimately chose to endorse it.
In Thursday's address, he thanked Congress for debating the deal on its merits and characterized the rift with Obama as a "disagreement within the family." And he underscored that, in spite of the public battle, the US remains Israel's most valuable ally.
Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the White House next month.
After spending the majority of his speech condemning Iran and the deal over its nuclear work, he turned to the Palestinian issue, responding largely to a speech delivered the day before by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In that address, Abbas appeared to disavow commitments made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords were first signed in 1993.
"I am prepared to immediately resume direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any preconditions whatsoever," Netanyahu said. "Unfortunately, President Abbas said yesterday that he is not prepared to do this. I hope he changes his mind."
Abbas, in his speech, said the international community should treat Palestine as an independent state occupied by a foreign power.
"Israel has destroyed the foundations upon which the political and security agreements are based," Abbas said. "We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and that Israel must assume all its responsibilities as an occupying power."
Shortly after Abbas' speech, the Quartet on the Middle East— comprised of the UN, EU, US and Russia— released a statement reiterating its goals: A negotiated two-state outcome "that meets Israeli security needs and Palestinian aspirations for Statehood and sovereignty, ends the occupation that began in 1967 and resolves all permanent status issues in order to end the conflict."
The group warned that a continuation of the status quo may imperil the viability of a two-state plan.
The UN has adopted twenty resolutions condemning Israel in the past year— far more than on any other issue or against any other nation, including Syria, which has been the subject of one resolution. Netanyahu cited the figure as an example of the body's "obsessive bashing of Israel."
In his call for direct negotiations, Netanyahu said: "We owe it to our peoples to try." Both he and Abbas were directly involved in a nine-month negotiations process brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry which, in July 2014, collapsed without results.
"President Abbas, here’s a good place to begin: Stop spreading lies about Israel’s alleged intentions on the Temple Mount. Israel is fully committed to maintaining the status quo there," he said. Both the Quartet and UN's secretary-general Ban Ki-moon have condemned incitements to violence on the holy site in recent days.
"Don't use the Palestinian state as a stepping stone to another Islamist dictatorship in the Middle East, but make its something real," Netanyahu added. "We can do remarkable things."
But the PA responded on Thursday evening by rejecting the premise of the prime minister's argument: Netanyahu, PLO secretary general Saeb Erekat said, has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of genuine interest in peace.
"Members of his camp have continually sabotaged every attempt at a meaningful peace process. The Palestinians have never placed conditions on peace," said Erekat. "Palestinians have demanded that Israel abide by the obligations it has already made to the Palestinians, which Israel has yet to fulfill."
"As Mr. Netanyahu tells the world he wants to negotiate for two-states, he has built the largest illegal settlement enterprise seen in modern history," he continued.
Debate over Israeli-Palestinian peace has been a consistent topic in the UN's annual debate, and this year has been no exception: Speeches by leaders from France to Lesotho have called for a settlement, using their precious time on the international stage.
One leader who avoided the issue was the president of the United States. In his Monday address, Obama did not mention either Israel or the Palestinians once.
For his part, on the issues of Palestine, Iran and the role of the international community, Netanyahu's message had a common theme: Israel remains a democracy, with values consistent with the liberal tenets of the United Nations' founding charter.
Both in silence and with fiery rhetoric, he called on fellow members to celebrate that tradition.
"Stand with Israel because Israel is not just defending itself," he concluded. "More than ever, Israel is defending you."
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