'We’ll build a new corridor of peace and prosperity'

Netanyahu tells UN that Israel ‘at the cusp’ of historic peace with Saudi Arabia

With Saudi diplomat in attendance, PM offers vision of ‘new Middle East’ and AI-enabled future, but ignores bitter fight over judicial overhaul back home and on NYC streets

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses a red marker on a map of 'The New Middle East' as he addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (Bryan R. Smith / AFP)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses a red marker on a map of 'The New Middle East' as he addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (Bryan R. Smith / AFP)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows a map of "Israel in 1948" as he addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 22, 2023. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows a map of "Israel in 1948" as he addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 22, 2023. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)
  • A Saudi diplomat listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2023. (Prime Minister's Office)
    A Saudi diplomat listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2023. (Prime Minister's Office)
  • An anti-judicial overhaul rally outside the UN in New York, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly, on September 22, 2023 (Luke Tress / Times of Issrael.
    An anti-judicial overhaul rally outside the UN in New York, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly, on September 22, 2023 (Luke Tress / Times of Issrael.
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 22, 2023, at United Nations headquarters. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 22, 2023, at United Nations headquarters. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK — Taking the stage Friday at the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel is “at the cusp” of a historic peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, a deal he predicted will transform the Middle East.

“Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Netanyahu, addressing the gathering for the 12th time. “It will encourage other Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel. It will enhance the prospects of peace with the Palestinians. It will encourage a broader reconciliation between Judaism and Islam, between Jerusalem and Mecca, between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.”

“All these are tremendous blessings.”

Netanyahu framed his address in biblical terms, presenting the future as a choice between a blessing and a curse. He used a similar approach while discussing artificial intelligence with Elon Musk earlier this week.

“Peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia will truly create a new Middle East,” Netanyahu said to applause from dozens of Jews and Israelis in the gallery who came to show their support.

The hall was largely empty on the last morning of the confab, but in another encouraging sign for Netanyahu, a lone Saudi official wearing a black head covering sat listening to the entire speech.

The Prime Minister’s Office made a point to send out a photo of the diplomat to Israeli reporters.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, left, and US President Joe Biden, right, shake hands next to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, September 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Pool)

The address came days after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman struck an optimistic tone about the prospects of an agreement, telling Fox News that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel.

Netanyahu chose to focus his General Assembly speech on his grand visions — peace with Riyadh, an AI future without scarcity — and not on the persistent fight back at home over the judicial overhaul, even as hundreds of protestors waving Israeli flags gathered outside Turtle Bay to let their displeasure be known.

Netanyahu went out of his way to praise US President Joe Biden, saying he “deeply appreciates” the president’s commitment to “seize this historic opportunity.”

“We share the same optimism for what can be achieved… The United States of America is indispensable in this effort,” he said.

Biden and Netanyahu met on Wednesday in New York, with the US president extending an invitation to the White House in front of the cameras, which has eluded the premier since his return to power at the end of last year.

US President Joe Biden, right, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“And just as we achieved the Abraham Accords with the leadership of President Trump, I believe we can achieve peace with Saudi Arabia with the leadership of President Biden,” Netanyahu said, making sure to offer something to the Republican candidate who could well return to the White House in 2025.

As he often does at his UN speeches, Netanyahu pulled out a visual aid showing “the New Middle East,” echoing a phrase first used in the 1990s by Israeli statesman Shimon Peres amid hopes for blossoming peace in the region as Israel secured accords with the Palestinians and Jordan.

Just as we achieved the Abraham Accords with the leadership of President Trump, I believe we can achieve peace with Saudi Arabia with the leadership of President Biden

“Today I bring this marker to show a great blessing — the blessing of a new Middle East: between Israel, Saudi Arabia and our other neighbors,” said Netanyahu, recalling his use of a marker in his 2012 speech to the forum on Iran’s nuclear program. “We will not only bring down barriers between Israel and our neighbors. We will build a new corridor of peace and prosperity that connects Asia through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel to Europe.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a map of The New Middle East as he addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.(Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)

Old foes in Tehran and Ramallah

Netanyahu also turned to the prospect of peace with the Palestinians, seeking to present himself as a would-be peacemaker who has run up against Palestinian obduracy.

“I’ve long sought to make peace with the Palestinians,” he said. While stressing that he believes in peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said they “must not have a veto” over peace with Arab states. He argued that making peace with more Arab countries will push the Palestinians to make peace with Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The Palestinians long hoped that the Arab world, “being in a warlike state with Israel,” would eventually “choke” the Jewish state, he charged.

“When the Palestinians see that most of the Arab world has reconciled itself to the Jewish state, they too will be more likely to abandon the fantasy of destroying Israel and finally embrace the path of genuine peace with it.”

As the circle of peace expands, said Netanyahu, a real path to “genuine peace with our Palestinian neighbors can finally be achieved.”

“But there is a caveat,” he said. “Peace can only be achieved if it is based on truth.”

“It cannot be based on lies. It cannot be based on endless vilification of the Jewish people.”

He blasted PA President Mahmoud Abbas for “spreading the horrible antisemitic conspiracies against the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”

Noting Abbas’s antisemitic speech last month, he said, “I mean, he recently said that Hitler wasn’t an antisemite. You can’t make this up. But he did. He said that.”

He added that the PA must stop glorifying terrorists and stop the ghoulish practice of giving money to Palestinian terrorists for killing Jews. “It must stop, for peace to prevail.”

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi holds up a Quran as he addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, September 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

As Israeli leaders typically do in major addresses and meetings, Netanyahu spent significant time on the Iranian nuclear threat and Tehran’s support for terrorism.

“The fanatics ruling Iran will do everything they can to thwart this historic peace,” Netanyahu exhorted.

He accused Iran of spending billions to arm its proxies and spread terror worldwide: “They even tried to assassinate the secretary of state… [and] the national security adviser of the United States of America,” he said.

The premier said Iran’s “murderous goons” have killed hundreds of its own people in the past year. “Iran’s drones have… brought death and destruction” to Ukraine, he added.

“Yet the regime’s aggression is largely met by indifference in the international community,” Netanyahu lamented.

He did offer some oblique criticism of the Biden administration and Western countries over Iran.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference as he announces that five Americans who had been jailed for years in Iran have been freed, in New York City on September 18, 2023. (Photo by Craig Ruttle / POOL / AFP)

“Eight years ago, the Western powers promised that if Iran violated the nuclear deal, the sanctions would be snapped back,” he said. “Well, Iran is violating the deal, but the sanctions have not been snapped back. To stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, this policy must change. Sanctions must be snapped back.”

“And above all, Iran must face a credible nuclear threat,” he said. His office put out a statement shortly after saying he misread the line and meant to say a “credible military threat.”

“As long as I’m prime minister of Israel, I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” pledged Netanyahu.

AImagine

The final section of Netanyahu’s speech was on the promise of artificial intelligence, an area in which he wants to see Israel emerge as a global leader.

He called on the world to address the risks to make sure “the promise of an AI utopia does not turn into an AI dystopia.”

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)

He cited the threat it could pose to democracy and the “potential eruption of AI-driven wars.”

Striking a visionary tone, he imagined the benefits in health care, aging, transportation, education and a range of other fields.

“I know this all sounds like a John Lennon song,” he said, but it is possible.

“Imagine we can achieve the end of scarcity,” he urged the hall. “It’s all within our reach.”

Israelis and Diaspora Jews supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fill the rows in the upper balcony at the UN Assembly Hall as the prime minister arrives to address the UN General Assembly, September 22, 2023 (Lazar Berman / Times of Israel)

So, too, he said, is the possibility to “extend humanity beyond our blue planet.”

“Just as Israel’s technological revolution provided the world with breathtaking innovation, I am confident that AI developed by Israel will benefit all of humanity,” Netanyahu predicted.

“Our goal must be to ensure that AI brings more freedom and not less; prevents wars, instead of starting them; and ensures that people live longer, healthier, more productive, and peaceful lives. It’s within our reach.”

Netanyahu ended with an exhortation to “choose wisely between the curse and the blessing that stand before us this day. Let us harness our resolve and our courage to stop the curse of a nuclear Iran and roll back its fanaticism and aggression.”

“Let us bring forth the blessings of a new Middle East that will transform lands once riven with conflict and chaos into fields of prosperity and peace. And may we avoid the perils of AI by combining the forces of human and machine intelligence to usher in a brilliant future for our world, in our time and for all time.”

His supporters in the upper balcony rose to their feet to laud his address as he stepped down from the podium.

But Opposition Leader Yair Lapid was less moved by the remarks. He called Netanyahu out for skipping over Saudi Arabia’s demand for a civilian nuclear program, and accused him of ignoring the US demand to stop his government’s judicial overhaul and “the fact that the State of Israel is being torn apart because of his government.”

“He does not even try to heal the rifts and unite the people. Sad,” Lapid wrote on X.

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