There were no gimmicks. Few excruciating one-liners. Just a single visual aid: a photograph of three children in Gaza at play right next to a rocket launcher.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a no-nonsense address to the United National General Assembly on Monday — presenting himself as the leader of a “proud and unbowed” nation, charged with the “awesome responsibility” of ensuring his much-threatened people’s future in a brutal, unstable region.
It was not a speech entirely bereft of hope. He reached out “to Cairo, to Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere” and asserted that a rapprochement with Israel by such Arab players could in turn yield a peace agreement with the Palestinians, which, he also said, “will obviously necessitate a territorial compromise.”
But the outlook he presented was immensely grim, nonetheless. His bitter overview, he said toward the end of his remarks, “may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but it is the truth. And the truth must always be spoken, especially here in the United Nations.”
As spoken by Netanyahu, the truth is that “militant Islam is on the march,” that its ambitions are global, and that all its many, sometimes competing factions are “branches of the same poisonous tree.” Thus it is ridiculous and self-defeating for countries to support the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State but criticize Israel for tackling Hamas. If not stopped in its tracks, he indicated, Islamic extremism would come for everyone.
The truth, as further set out by the prime minister, is that the most potent such example of globally ambitious militant Islam is what he took pains to call “the Islamic state of Iran,” which has been seeking to export its revolution for 35 years and must be denied the nuclear weapons to further its radical cause. Just as world powers would not let IS enrich uranium, build a heavy water reactor or develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, so Iran must not be allowed to “do those things either,” he insisted. “To defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war,” he declared — a point he considered so fundamental that he repeated the sentence.
The truth, Netanyahu noted too, is that Israel has faced “libelous charges” of deliberately killing civilians in its war against Hamas terrorism this summer, when in fact “no other country and no other army in history” had gone to greater lengths to avoid casualties among the civilian population of their enemy. The IDF, he declared, “upheld the highest moral values of any army in the world… Israel’s soldiers deserve not condemnation but admiration. Admiration from decent people everywhere.”
It is Hamas, said Netanyahu, that committed war crimes. It is Hamas, not Israel, that the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should have singled out for castigation from the same UN podium last Friday, and it is Hamas that the UN should be investigating. Indeed, by focusing its bias on Israel, he charged, the UN’s Human Rights Council was “sending a clear message to terrorists everywhere” — to use civilians as human shields. The UN Human Rights Council “has thus become a terrorists’ rights council,” he lamented.
For Netanyahu, that UN bias was just one dire manifestation of another awful truth — the revival of the disease of anti-Semitism, as reflected in calls from “mobs in Europe” for the gassing of Jews, and some national leaders making foul comparisons of Israel to the Nazis. “This is not a function of Israel’s policies. It’s a function of diseased minds. And that disease has a name. It’s called anti-Semitism,” he said. “It is now spreading in polite society, where it masquerades as legitimate criticism of Israel.”
Having fumed since Friday at Abbas’s accusation that Israel committed “genocide” in Gaza this summer, Netanyahu batted the charge away here in just a few angry sentences. The Jewish state was being demonized with “the apartheid libel” and allegations of genocide, he said in horror. “In what moral universe,” he asked, did warning the enemy’s civilian population to get out of the way, ensuring humanitarian aid, and setting up a field hospital to aid the enemy’s wounded, constitute genocide? “The same moral universe,” he answered, in which Abbas could level his accusations from the UN podium. The genocide charge, he also noted, had been made by the selfsame Palestinian leader who, as a student, produced “a dissertation of lies about the Holocaust” and who now insists upon “a Palestine free of Jews — Judenrein.”
If Abbas’s speech left little prospect of future dealings with Netanyahu, the prime minister made clear in those few sentences that he will not be inclined to interact any further with Abbas.
The next truth as delivered by Netanyahu was, like it or not, that the Middle East has changed for the worse in recent years, that states were “disintegrating,” that Islamic militant groups had filled the vacuum when Israel left Gaza and South Lebanon, and thus that Israel had heightened concerns about territorial concessions in the future. Israel simply could not tolerate IS within mortar range — the situation that would prevail if Islamic militants took control of the West Bank. And therefore, under any peace agreement, he said, repeating a theme he had returned to several times during the summer, “I will always insist that Israel be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
There were some, he said — choosing to name no names, after months of friction with the US over West Bank security proposals — who “still don’t take Israel’s security concerns seriously. But I do,” said Netanyahu, “and I always will, because as prime minister of Israel I am entrusted with the awesome responsibility of ensuring the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” And “no matter what pressure is brought to bear,” he pledged, “I will never waver in fulfilling that responsibility.”
In those phrases, Netanyahu vouchsafed his deepest truth of all — highlighting the sheer weight of the burden he feels he carries, albeit one he considers himself uniquely well-equipped to shoulder.
This passage came at the end of a speech that his critics at home and abroad, he knew, would immediately seize upon as defensive, stubborn and grim. In Netanyahu’s worldview, however, he was being realistic, firm and clear-headed.