ANALYSIS: Netanyahu heard loud and clear in the United Nations

Drowned out by the Kavanaugh controversy in the US, Netanyahu’s UN speech still made waves where it counts most.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a speech at the UNGA in New York on September 27th, 2018. (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a speech at the UNGA in New York on September 27th, 2018.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
It was vintage Netanyahu, the speech the prime minister delivered last week to the United Nations General Assembly.
It had pathos, props, sardonic humor, drama, revelations – even a pile of papers on the podium with words printed in bold black with huge letters, easy to see even for the visually impaired. All of the above are trademarks of a consequential Netanyahu speech.
Yet despite all the necessary components, this speech wasn’t the main item that led the US news shows or the top headline in the newspapers the next day. That was reserved for another performance that took place at the same time in Washington, DC, some 370 kilometers away from the UN headquarters in New York.
There, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh – whom Ford accused of a sexual attack 36 years ago – gave testimony that competed with Netanyahu in terms of sheer drama. The Ford-Kavanaugh saga had Americans riveted to their television sets, watching a movie-like political drama – one that comes around about once in a generation – unfold right before their eyes.
Even Netanyahu’s revelations of the existence of a secret nuclear storehouse in Tehran, equipped with a map and photo to prove it – as well as his holding up intelligence photos of the location of precision-guided missile factories in Beirut – could not compete with what was happening in a Senate committee room.
“Today, I am disclosing for the first time that Iran has another secret facility in Tehran – a secret atomic warehouse for storing massive amounts of equipment and matériel from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program,” Netanyahu said.
Then he held up a map of where the site is located in the Turkuzahbad district of Tehran, as well as a picture of the building that he said houses the facility. He said Iranian officials are “desperately trying” to empty it of radioactive material.
In another part of the speech, Netanyahu turned to the situation in Lebanon and said that Iran is directing Hezbollah to build secret sites to convert inaccurate projectiles into precision-guided missiles.
He displayed an aerial photo showing where those sites are allegedly located as well, two of them near Beirut international airport, and a third underneath a nearby soccer stadium.
Neither CNN nor Fox News led its news show with the Netanyahu speech, nor did The New York Times or The Washington Post feature on its front page any of what he revealed – all that was dominated by the Ford and Kavanaugh testimonies.
For Netanyahu, this was just a matter of unfortunate timing, being slated to speak as the extraordinary Senate hearing was well under way.
THE PRIME MINISTER loves these UN speeches. He relishes the moment, basks in the limelight, obviously enjoys the opportunity to highlight his rhetorical skills.
He carefully prepares his remarks, going over draft after draft, changing a paragraph here, a sentence there, even at times taking out a word, since he hates jargon. He often incorporates some gimmick in his high-profile speeches to the UN – be it a document, drawing of a bomb, or long pause in the middle of a speech – to ensure that his address stands out from the other 190 or so delivered over three days.
And he generally succeeds – though this time, at least in the US, he did not get the media bang he was accustomed to: not for lack of trying or compelling material, but simply because for most Americans the bigger and better show was taking place in Washington.
But getting the speech reported on the front page of major US dailies is only one measure of the success of a Netanyahu UN address – there are others. Indeed, Netanyahu layers his speeches to the UN in such a way that they are often designed for different audiences.
The US audience, though important, was not his main audience this year – unlike in 2013 and 2014, when he spoke to the world body during the height of his battle with the Obama administration over the Iran deal. Then, the thrust of his speech was to convince the American public that president Barack Obama – in supporting a nuclear agreement with Iran – was simply taking the world down a mistaken and dangerous path.
But now Washington – led by US President Donald Trump – is onboard with Netanyahu regarding Iran. Netanyahu did not need to torch the Iranians in his speech in an effort to win over US public opinion on Iran; the president himself was almost more Netanyahu than Netanyahu at the UN in the way he spoke about the Islamic Republic.
This year the main audiences were the Europeans, the Iranians, the Lebanese and – yes – those Israelis watching at home.
Netanyahu’s base loves to see an unapologetic Netanyahu – speaking an English they could only dream of – stand up to the world.
“Have these European leaders learned nothing from history?” he asked, accusing the Europeans of appeasing the Iranians. And select footage of this speech is sure to star in campaign advertisements when a new election rolls around, something many are betting will happen in relatively short order.
But even his home base was not the main address. By displaying intelligence information, Netanyahu was trying to push – even shame – the Europeans, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrived in Israel Wednesday evening, into joining US sanctions against Iran or, at the very least, not trying to save the Iranian economy from those sanctions.
“While the United States is confronting Iran with new sanctions, Europe and others are appeasing Iran by trying to help it bypass those sanctions,” he said.
“Now I just used a word, a tough word, a very strong word – “appeasement” – and I use it reluctantly, but unfortunately that’s exactly what we are seeing again in Europe.”
Then, referring to an allegedly Iranian-backed plan to attack an Iranian opposition group in Paris in June, he said, “Think about this: The same week Iran was caught red-handed trying to murder European citizens, European leaders were rolling out the red carpet for President Rouhani, promising to give Iran even more money.”
Five days after Netanyahu’s speech, France announced that it was freezing the assets of Iranian intelligence services as well as of the Iranian diplomats believed to be behind the plot.
Coincidental? Probably, but one thing that Netanyahu does with these speeches is keep issues alive and on the international agenda.
What was definitely not coincidental, however, was a tour Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil led Sunday for diplomats and journalists of sites in Beirut near the ones Netanyahu mentioned in his speech.
“The foreign ministry is not a fact-finding committee and we do not operate as an Israeli scout,” Basil said, explaining the rationale of the tour. “This is the exact location, the airport area. When Netanyahu spoke about it, we know Israel’s intentions, and because he spoke from the UN forum, we had to emphasize that the airport is an airport for peace, for the reconstruction of Lebanon and Syria and linking Lebanon to the world and the Lebanese diaspora, so we decided not to remain silent and this initiative will not be repeated.
“It is illogical to hide rockets near an international airport,” he added. “It is true that Hezbollah has missiles, but they are not near the airport.”
The foreign minister, it seems, doth protest too much. His tour, his comments, revealed concern that Israel might take action against the sites. As Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun tweeted the following day, Netanyahu’s claims are “unfounded and conceal a new Israeli threat to Lebanese sovereignty.”
Lebanon, he asserted, “will face any Israeli aggression against its sovereignty.”
The Iranians, too, were given notice – yet again, following Netanyahu’s revelation in May that Israel had spirited the country’s nuclear archives out of the country – that Israel knows what Iran is doing and precisely where it is doing it.
They may publicly scoff and mock, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Tehran’s representative at the UN did in response to Netanyahu, saying that his charges were all “monstrous lies” and Israeli smoke and mirrors, but – like the Lebanese – they took notice.
As Yuval Steinitz, the energy minister and member of the security cabinet, said this week, “The Iranians and Lebanese know very well that what the prime minister presented was frightfully accurate, and these revelations – which is just the tip of the iceberg, and here there was a decision to reveal just one or two things – even this revelation has a deterrent effect.”
“Because if they delude themselves into thinking that they can hide things from us, they got clear proof to the opposite – that the Israeli intelligence reaches everywhere.”
The way the Iranians and Lebanese responded this week to this message shows that while in the US Netanyahu’s speech was drowned out by the Ford and Kavanaugh testimonies, in Beirut and Tehran they were paying attention, and that the message Netanyahu delivered came across loud and clear.