Netanyahu looks to cap off streak of successes in America with UN address

After holding court with Elon Musk, calming Zelensky, getting a White House invite and a surprise boost from MBS, premier takes stage at arguably the high point of his term

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses world leaders at the 72nd UN General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses world leaders at the 72nd UN General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

NEW YORK — On Friday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will stride up to the podium at the United Nations Assembly Hall for the 12th time, aiming to culminate what is arguably the most successful week of his current term in office.

Netanyahu will focus on opportunities and dangers for the Middle East — possibly the chance for Israeli normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia and doubtlessly the ongoing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

He will devote only a few lines to the Israeli judicial overhaul fight, according to the Ynet news site, stressing that he is working toward a broad consensus with the opposition if possible, or “with the public” if he is left with no other choice.

As he did in his meeting with US President Joe Biden, Netanyahu will declare that Israel will always be a democracy and that he is committed to protecting the values it shares with the US and other Western allies.

The prime minister’s trip got off to a rocky start, as just before departing Israel he accused protesters against the judicial shakeup of “teaming up” with Iran and Palestinians against the nation. His aides scrambled to minimize the damage, insisting he meant only that the activists in the US should be protesting against anti-Israel demonstrations at the UN instead of bashing Israel’s leader alongside them.

Israeli and expat protestors have shown up everywhere Netanyahu has gone this week, from airports to hotels, and other venues.

But they seemed unable to throw Netanyahu off rhythm. When he took the stage with Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the auto manufacturer’s Fremont factory, holding forth at a potentially highly contentious event in front of millions on X — not only on the risks and opportunities presented by artificial intelligence, but also on antisemitism and the judicial overhaul — Netanyahu seemed calm and prepared. He theorized at length about AI with Musk and the top minds in the field, dictating much of the pace and direction of that part of the conversation, mixing humor with discussions of Plato and the Bible.

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Elon Musk during a live discussion on the social media platform X, at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, September 18, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/ GPO)

His hot streak continued in New York. A potentially explosive meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was warm, and Ukrainian officials exited looking pleased.

Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak, usually a hardliner on Israel, walked out of the meeting with his arm around Mossad chief David Barnea, telling him “I’m very appreciative.”

Talks with the volatile Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were apparently productive too.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 19, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The meeting with Biden the next day, even more potentially perilous, went as well as Netanyahu could have hoped. Though the president made sure to note concern over checks and balances in Israel and democratic values, his comments went no further than White House messaging has all year.

Moreover, Biden said in front of the cameras at the very start of the session that he expected to host Netanyahu in Washington by the end of 2023, seemingly ending a freezeout that has clearly irked the prime minister.

US President Joe Biden, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 20, 2023. (Avi Ohayon, GPO)

There were some other gains during his meetings with world leaders. Democratic Republic of Congo President Félix Tshisekedi announced he would move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, and officials indicated more countries could yet join that trend before Netanyahu flies back to Israel.

But the highlight of Netanyahu’s week came from a country that doesn’t even recognize Israel, for now, when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Fox News in an interview aired hours after the Biden meeting that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel.

The de-facto Saudi leader also appeared to scale back expectations on what Jerusalem would have to offer the Palestinians in a deal, saying only “I want to see really a good life for the Palestinians.”

“We hope it will reach a place that it will ease the life of the Palestinians, and get Israel as a player in the Middle East,” he added, notably stopping short of saying Palestinians must have a state of their own.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Netanyahu will try to carry the momentum onto the UN stage on Friday, the first time he’s spoken there since 2018. (He sent his Foreign Minister Israel Katz in his stead in 2019, stayed home at the height of the COVID restrictions in 2020, and was in opposition the past two General Assemblies).

Netanyahu’s speech is scheduled to begin at 9:15 a.m. local time (4:15 p.m. in Israel), which means that it falls only hours before the Jewish Sabbath begins in Israel, as religious Israelis, who make up much of his political base, scramble to complete preparations before sundown.

But his address isn’t chiefly meant for them.

With Israelis’ attention elsewhere ahead of Shabbat and Yom Kippur, Netanyahu’s message will be tailored toward the two leaders with whom he is trying to close a legacy-making deal — Joe Biden and Mohammed bin Salman.

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