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Iranian nuclear program at a 'watershed moment' -- PM

At UN, Bennett hints at action on Iran: ‘Words don’t stop centrifuges spinning’

In first address to General Assembly, PM says Israel ‘pioneered’ COVID booster shots, hails his government as model for ‘debate without hate’; no mention of Palestinians

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 27, 2021, at UN headquarters in New York. (John Minchillo/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 27, 2021, at UN headquarters in New York. (John Minchillo/Pool/AFP)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday warned the United Nations General Assembly that Iran’s nuclear weapon program is at a “critical point,” while touting an approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that does not rely on lockdown measures.

In his first address to the annual forum, Bennett focused heavily on Iran, stressing Tehran’s funding of proxies like Hezbollah, Shia militias, Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

“Iran seeks to dominate the region — and seeks to do so under a nuclear umbrella,” Bennett said. “For the past three decades Iran has spread its carnage and destruction around the Middle East, country after country: Lebanon. Iraq. Syria. Yemen. And Gaza.”

Bennett compared what he called Iran’s “Mullah-touch” to the Midas touch of Greek mythology: “Every place Iran touches — fails.”

He emphasized Iranian UAV attacks on civilian shipping, Saudi and US targets, before turning to new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his human rights record.

“In 1988, Iran set up a death commission that ordered the mass murder of 5,000 political activists,” the premier said. “They were hanged from cranes.”

“This death commission was made up of four people. Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s new president, was one of them.”

“One of the witnesses of this massacre,” Bennett continued, “stated in her testimony, that when Raisi would finish a round of murder, he’d throw a party, pocketing the money of those he just executed… and then would sit down to eat cream cakes.”

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi speaks before parliament to defend his cabinet selection in the capital Tehran, on August 21, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Bennett then argued that Iran has crossed “all red lines” in its nuclear program, and claimed that proof of its nuclear weapons goal found at several secret sites was being ignored.

“Iran’s nuclear weapon program is at a critical point. All red lines have been crossed. Inspections, ignored. All wishful thinking, proven false,” he said.

“Iran is violating the IAEAs safeguard agreements, and it’s getting away with it. They harass inspectors and sabotage their investigations, and they’re getting away with it. They enrich uranium to the level of 60 percent, which is one step short of weapons-grade material, and they’re getting away with it,” he continued.

“Evidence which clearly proves Iran’s intentions for nuclear weapons in secret sites in Turquzabad, Teheran and Marivan is ignored,” he claimed.

“Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment. And so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning,” he said, hinting Israel could act against Iran’s nuclear program.

“We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” he added.

“If we put our heads to it, if we’re serious about stopping it, if we use all our resourcefulness, we can prevail,” he said, signaling that Israel wants a joint response with other countries and the international community.

COVID response ‘not only about health’

Turning to the coronavirus pandemic, Bennett pushed back against relying on restrictive measures.

“Lockdowns, restrictions, quarantines — cannot work in the long run,” Bennett said.

“Running a country during a pandemic is not only about health. It’s about carefully balancing all aspects of life that are affected by corona, especially jobs and education.”

Bennett presented his guiding principles for defeating the virus — the country must stay open, vaccinate early, adapt and move quickly.

“We pioneered the booster shot,” he said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 27, 2021, at UN headquarters in New York. (John Minchillo/Pool/AFP)

The prime minister argued that there are two plagues “challenging the very fabric of society today, COVID-19 and political polarization.

“Both can erode public trust, and both can paralyze nations,” he said. “If left unchecked, their effects on society can be devastating.”

Israel, said the premier, faced them both, took action, and “can already see the horizon.”

He said that after four elections in two years, Israelis yearned for stability and political normalcy.

Bennett claimed that his ideologically unwieldy government, the “most diverse” in the country’s history, is an antidote to political polarization.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Gideon Saar during the swearing-in ceremony of newly elected President Isaac Herzog at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on July 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We speak to each other with respect, we act with decency, and we carry a message: Things can be different,” he said.

The ‘lighthouse’

The prime minister’s speech opened and closed with the theme that Israel is a “lighthouse in a stormy sea.”

Bennett called Israel “a beacon of democracy, diverse by design, innovative by nature, and eager to contribute to the world — despite being in the toughest neighborhood on earth.”

Bennett did not mention the Palestinians, nor did he bring up climate change, an issue many other world leaders focused on.

In the speech, he also highlighted Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the 2020 Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

“Alongside our old friends, we are gaining new friends — in the Middle East and beyond,” he said.

Bennett alluded to the 38 countries that boycotted “the racist, anti-Semitic, Durban conference.”

“It’s a choice between darkness and light,” Bennett concluded. “A bit of light dispels much darkness.”

“The lighthouse among the stormy seas — stands tall, stands strong, and her light shines brighter than ever.”

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