Low on drama, high on showmanship at the UN
Reporter's notebook

Low on drama, high on showmanship at the UN

Netanyahu’s speech demonstrated carefully planned PR work during a snoozy second week at the General Assembly

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a photo of a purported Hamas rocket as he addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly, September 29, 2014, in New York. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. Clary)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a photo of a purported Hamas rocket as he addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly, September 29, 2014, in New York. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. Clary)

NEW YORK — With the world primed and waiting, Kyrgyz Minister for Foreign Affairs Erlan Abdyldayev took the floor at the United Nations General Assembly early Monday afternoon in New York, delivering a speech to the largest webcast audience of the day. The UN attributed it to a scheduling mishap, but the last-minute switch ensured that the otherwise-neglected central Asian state enjoyed a bit of attention intended for the main event on Manhattan’s East Side — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu may have been the headlining act on Monday, but the polite, diplomatic veneer — coupled with the generally somnolent tenor of the General Assembly’s second week, dampened the drama.

Netanyahu’s speech was a carefully scripted accomplishment of media savvy, from the widely anticipated prop (this time, a picture of a Gazan girl in a red shirt playing next to rocket launchers), to the sleek infographics tweeted out real-time by the Prime Minister’s Office, creating the effect of a PowerPoint presentation directed at social media users.

If Israeli diplomats were concerned about a stony, silent reception for a leader who described the United Nations’ Human Rights Council as an “oxymoron,” they filled the potential void with a sizable team on the plenary floor, and also mustered an enthusiastic following in the visitors’ boxes, including longtime Netanyahu supporter and US casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. The result was that Netanyahu’s strongest one-liners were greeted by what sounded like enthusiastic applause from the plenary — critical for viewers, who mostly saw shots of Netanyahu on the podium, pausing until the applause subsided.

In the hall itself, attendance was only slightly less impressive than it had been throughout the day. Unlike in previous years, Netanyahu spoke on the second week of the General Assembly — in accordance with Israeli diplomatic policy of not attending GA events during the Jewish High Holidays. All of the plenary speeches in the second week are notable for their light audiences. The big show, as one New York cop told passersby outside of the building, was last week.

But if the circus on the East Side had somewhat abated from a week that included US President Barack Obama, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu’s speech was clearly the highlight of the day, both in the UN and among its followers. Across the Internet, viewership of the UN’s livestream channel increased tenfold when the Israeli PM took the podium.

In a gesture to the fact that US-Israel relations are not utterly bruised, the US gave Netanyahu top-level representation from US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and a sizable coterie of diplomats including Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

The US delegation had been much smaller, for instance, during an earlier speech Monday from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. Characteristic UN disdain was on display during Moallem’s speech. With an audience sparse compared even to the light overall attendance, Moallem meandered through his talk while delegates pecked away at laptops, scrawled notes, shifted papers, and even turned into the aisles so as not to face the Syrian speaker.

By comparison, Netanyahu’s diplomatically polite audience included a number of Arab states, with representatives from the Palestinian Authority, Kuwait, Egypt and Syria, although at least one Egyptian diplomat engaged in the traditional UN mark of disdain — clicking away at her computer while he spoke. In comparison, the one member of the Palestinian delegation who remained in the plenary watched Netanyahu intently throughout the speech.

Perhaps the greatest act of anti-Israel protest on show in the complacent plenary occurred as members of one delegation walked out in the middle of his talk, precisely as he denied charges of war crimes and genocide in Gaza. But if UN observers had expected major drama in the hall, it was not to be.

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