When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly next Thursday, October 1, he will be speaking to representatives of a world that in the past listened to his dire warnings about a nuclear Iran and chose not to heed his advice.
When he stands at the podium in front of the aqua marble background, he will be addressing the representatives of Arab countries who, over the past two years, heard him talk about a confluence of Israel and Sunni Arab interests that could be harnessed to bring about regional peace, but who have done nothing to publicly move on that idea.
And he will also be speaking during prime time in Israel, delivering for the domestic audience a well-constructed, articulate oration about the threats of militant Islam, the increasing dangers of Iran, and the recalcitrance of the Palestinians.
If the recent past is any indication, he will speak of Jewish rebirth in its land, and touch on the reemergence of anti-Semitism in the guise of delegitimizing Israel. He will make a strong case, and end with a quote from one of the prophets.
The premier’s backers will praise the speech as speaking truth to power, as proudly giving voice to 2,000 years of Jewish aspirations, as being both conciliatory and strong.
And his detractors will say there was nothing new, nothing bold: no imagination, no initiative, no creativity, just talk of all those threats facing the Jewish state.
The world’s representatives at the UN – and in their respective capitals – will listen and then go on their merry way.
It is, of course, exceptionally over-ambitious to believe a speech can change reality. Few speeches have. However, Netanyahu believes strongly in the power of words, in presenting Israel’s case. What that often means is that if he does so in a compelling fashion, the sense among those surrounding him is that the victory was won – even if, in reality, nothing fundamentally changed.
The premier’s controversial speech to the US Congress in March was a case in point. The speech was strong, articulate, passionate. And a few months later US President Barack Obama – who shares Netanyahu’s belief in the power of a great speech – got his Iranian nuclear deal through Congress.
The same dynamic, over the years, has been evident in Netanyahu’s speeches to the UN.
Netanyahu loves a speech, and there is no place he better likes delivering one than at the UN, when the whole world is watching. Thursday’s address will be his sixth speech to the world body since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2009.
Some of the most memorable Netanyahu moments – moments that will be remembered years from now – took place behind the podium at the UN, such as when in 2012 he pulled out a cartoonish caricature of a bomb and drew Israel’s redline on Iran’s nuclear program. Or like that time in 2009 when he held up the original construction plans of the Auschwitz-Buchenwald concentration camp, signed by Heinrich Himmler, to dispute the Holocaust denying of then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The UN is a stage Netanyahu relishes, and one upon which he knows how to generate headlines, either with a prop or with snappy lines.
Some of his best lines were delivered at the UN.
In 2009, to those who refused to attend the UN speech of Ahmadinejad who a week earlier called the Holocaust a “lie,” or who walked out in protest as the Iranian leader engaged in anti-US and anti-Israel rants, Netanyahu said, “You stood up for moral clarity, and you brought honor to your countries. But to those who gave this Holocaust denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere, have you no shame? Have you no decency?” In 2011 (he skipped the 2010 meeting) Netanyahu said, “Better a bad press than a good eulogy, and better still would be a fair press whose sense of history extends beyond breakfast, and which recognizes Israel’s legitimate security concerns.” This line was delivered as the UN was considering the Palestinians’ statehood bid.
During the 2012 speech, along with the bomb cartoon and the red line, Netanyahu said the following: “I think the relevant question is this: It’s not whether this fanaticism [militant Islam] will be defeated; it’s how many lives will be lost before it’s defeated. We’ve seen that happen before, too.”
In 2013, the year of Iranian President Rouhani’s charm offensive at the UN, Netanyahu called him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who thinks that he can pull the “wool over the eyes of the international community.” Rouhani, Netanyahu quipped, “thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it, too.”
And last year, when many of the speakers at the debate discussed the recently ended conflict in Gaza, Netanyahu said in defense of Israel’s policies that while “Israel was using its missiles to protect its children, Hamas was using its children to protect its missiles.”
BUT NEITHER Gaza nor the Palestinians were the thrust of Netanyahu’s speech last year, or the two years previous. Rather, the concentration was on Iran and on urging the world to keep turning the screws on Iran until it abandons its nuclear program.
But that did not happen, and the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA ) with Iran earlier this year has changed much regarding the Iranian dossier since Netanyahu spoke to the world body in 2014. As a result, his rhetoric will shift, with the thrust now surely to be not only on the continued danger of a nuclear Iran, but also on its destabilizing impact in the region as it gets more money and international legitimacy.
It is telling to look at Netanyahu’s speech on Iran last year and see to what extent his words were ignored.
“The Islamic Republic is now trying to bamboozle its way to an agreement that will remove the sanctions it still faces and leave it with a capacity of thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium. This would effectively cement Iran’s place as a threshold military nuclear power. And in the future, at the time of its choosing, Iran, the world’s most dangerous regime, in the world’s most dangerous region, would obtain the world’s most dangerous weapons. Allowing that to happen would pose the gravest threat to us all,” he thundered.
A year later, that is what Netanyahu believes is exactly what happened. He spoke; the world listened and paid no heed.
In 2013 the prime minister said that to be meaningful, a diplomatic solution with Iran would require four elements: that Iran cease all uranium enrichment, that its stockpiles of enriched uranium be removed from its territory, that it dismantle its infrastructure for nuclear breakout capability, and that all work stop at its heavy water reactor at Arak.
None of those goals was fully realized in the JCPA , which means that if the proof is in the bottom line, Netanyahu – with his speeches – failed to sway the world.
But the prime minister does not look at it that way. He looks as these speeches as his obligation.
He often speaks of his obligation, not just his right, to speak on behalf of the Jewish people – as if speaking for the historical protocol is important; as if he is speaking so that, years hence, his sons can say to the world, “Our father told you so.”
But there’s more to it than that. He is trying to delegitimize Iran. The speech he gives on Thursday will urge the world body to avoid accepting Iran back into the family of nations but, rather, to look at what it is doing in the region and the terrorism and instability it is sowing.
IT IS ALSO interesting to look at Netanyahu’s speech in 2014 in terms of what has taken place over the year regarding the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
In that speech he put forward the idea of a new diplomatic paradigm.
“After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that, together, we and they face many of the same dangers,” he said, speaking of Iran and Islamic radicalism, “Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership, one that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.”
Rather than working from the inside out – from peace with the Palestinians leading to rapprochement with the rest of the Arab world – he proffered the idea of working from the outside in, rapprochement with the Arab world bringing about the conditions that would make peace possible with the Palestinians.
“To achieve that peace, we must look not only to Jerusalem and Ramallah but also to Cairo, to Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere,” he said.
Again, a fine idea – but one that so far does not seem to have a firm foundation on the ground.
As one senior US official said recently, there has been no indication since that speech that any Arab country is on board with that idea.
Netanyahu often likes to say in his speeches that facts are stubborn things. As is reality. The prime minister is sure to give a command performance in the UN on Thursday; he usually does. But if the recent history of his speeches to the UN is any indication, the chances of that speech significantly altering reality are slim indeed.