For 40 minutes at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eloquently articulated the challenges posed to Israel and to the international community by Iran and by Islamist fanaticism. He warned of the growing danger that Iran, “unleashed and unmuzzled,” will constitute in the wake of its nuclear deal. And he castigated the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for “libeling” Israel, from the same podium 24 hours earlier, by falsely asserting that Israel was seeking to harm religious freedom on the Temple Mount, when it was Islamic extremists who were desecrating the site by “smuggling explosives” into Al-Aqsa Mosque.
But most dramatically, he rebuked the membership of the very institution where he was speaking — the United Nations — for tolerating Iran’s relentless threats to destroy the Jewish state and “rushing to embrace” the regime. “Seventy years after the murder of six million Jews, Iran’s rulers promise to destroy my country, murder my people. And the response from this body, the response from nearly every one of the governments represented here,” he charged furiously, “has been absolutely nothing. Utter silence. Deafening silence.”
And then Netanyahu paused, staring defiantly, reproachfully out into the hall, head nodding slightly. For 44 very long seconds. In silent rebuke. And in apparent mourning for international morality.
The pause, the extended silence, was the theatrical centerpiece of this year’s address. After his display of the Auschwitz architectural plans in 2009, and his presentation of a cartoon nuclear bomb in 2012, this was a prop-free gimmick, a wordless denunciation.
Like a biblical prophet, Netanyahu had come to warn, to chastise, and to indict.
As so often in recent years, he also used the occasion to deride the notion that Iran, under this regime, will abandon terrorism, rein in its rapacious regional intervention, or scale back its inter-continental ballistic missiles programs. Well-intentioned though it might have been, the nuclear deal will leave the Iranians “weeks” from a nuclear arsenal when its sunset clauses expire, he said bitterly. In the meantime, he asked, could anybody seriously believe that sanctions relief would “turn this rapacious tiger into a kitten?”
As in years past, too, he determinedly asserted his desire for a permanent peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. By announcing that the Palestinians no longer regard themselves as bound by the Oslo accords and other agreements with Israel, Abbas, this year, had made it a little easier for Netanyahu to assert that Israel was sinned against rather than sinning when it comes to the peace deadlock.
Again in common with previous appearances, he took pains to highlight the vital centrality of Israel’s ties to the United States. Where President Barack Obama, on Monday, had notably refrained from so much as mentioning Israel in his address, Netanyahu highlighted the bilateral relationship as “the most important that Israel has” and, however implausibly, asserted that both he and Obama consider their disagreements to be “within the family.”
What was most strikingly different this year was the prominence and weight he gave to his assault on the international community’s failed outlook, self-defeatingly skewed priorities, and mistreatment of Israel.
He urged the world to at least hold Iran to the terms of the nuclear deal, deeply flawed though they may be. He encouraged the UN to help advance peace with the Palestinians — not via biased resolutions but by backing direct, bilateral talks. He pleaded for the UN to end its decades of “obsessive” Israel bashing. He sounded like a man of convictions; he did not sound like a man expecting to be heeded.
Bolstered by supporters in the gallery, Netanyahu found himself applauded for his sentiments with unusual frequency at this venue. But for all the ferocious anguish of his presentation, he will know that it will leave unmoved the overwhelming majority of global statespeople with whom he, and indeed much of Israel, are at odds. The Obama administration will not be recalibrating the nuclear accord. The French and the Germans will not be canceling their trade trips to Tehran. The international community will not start making demands of the Palestinians. The numerous UN forums devoted to critiquing Israel will not henceforth reassess, and devote more proportionate attention to Syria or any other crisis spot.
After a year in which the Iran deal was concluded over all his loud objections, the Syrian civil war rages bloodily on, Islamic State continues its campaign of killing, and the Middle East remains predictable only in its chronic instability, Netanyahu is only too aware of how isolated he is. It is unlikely anybody will even have seriously registered his pledge that “Israel will not allow Iran to break in, sneak in, or walk in to the nuclear weapons club,” and that “No one should question Israel’s determination to defend ourselves against those who would seek our destruction.”
The Israeli prime minister barked. The Israeli prime minister fell shamingly silent. But the UN caravan goes inexorably on.