There were two glaring omissions from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s first speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. In the course of over 2,000 words, he chose to mention neither his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, nor the key dispute that preoccupies the global forum when it comes to the Jewish state and its destiny: Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu, who saw himself as a master of the annual General Assembly gathering, was immensely conspicuous in his absence from Bennett’s presentation — the giant elephant in the vast, largely vacant room. Much of the first half of the prime minister’s speech, indeed, was devoted to a critique of He Who Must Not Be Named. It was focused on asserting that the new, multi-party coalition Bennett leads has saved Israel from the veritable catastrophe to which it was headed under his forerunner — through inspired handling of the COVID pandemic and a process of national healing from a second plague, of “political polarization.”
Plainly directing this section of his remarks to an audience in Israel rather than to the world’s leaders, the prime minister indicated his government had inherited an Israel that was headed into the abyss and heroically steered it to safety.
“There are moments in time where leaders have to take the wheel a moment before hitting the cliff, face the heat, but then drive the country to safety. And that’s exactly what we did,” he declared. “About a hundred days ago, my partners and I formed a new government in Israel, the most diverse government in Israel’s history. What started as a political accident, can now turn into a purpose. And that purpose is unity… Even though we harbor very, very different opinions, we sit together for the good of our nation.”
Because of the same unfortunate timing that afflicted his eve of Shabbat meeting with US President Joe Biden a month ago, however, it is unlikely that many Israelis will have been paying rapt attention to this domestic political message, this understandable, but somewhat inappropriate, settling of scores against the opposition leader who is plotting relentlessly to oust him. Most Israelis were probably readying for the final festivities of Sukkot, getting underway just a couple of hours after Bennett arrived at the UN podium.
Turning to international issues in the second half of his address, Bennett highlighted Iran’s “leap forward” toward a nuclear capability, Tehran’s malevolent new “startup: swarms of killer UAVs, armed with lethal weapons that can attack any place at any time,” and the imperative to thwart the ayatollahs. Israel, he vowed, would ensure that the regime’s ambitions were stymied.
“Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment. And so has our tolerance,” he said, echoing Netanyahu’s rhetoric over many years at this forum, albeit without his predecessor’s visual reinforcements. “Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning. There are those in the world who seem to view Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as an inevitable reality, as a done deal, or they’ve just become tired of hearing about it. Israel doesn’t have that privilege. We cannot tire. We will not tire. Israel will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Bennett also took pains to praise Israel’s main ally, the US, which last week came through, after a “progressive” hiccup, with $1 billion in funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system. And he hailed the Abraham Accords, which last year saw Israel normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, promising that “more is to come.”
Strikingly, however, he elected not to refer to the Palestinian conflict — a second omission to which he doubtless devoted considerable thought, and one that will be clearly noted internationally. Bennett shied away from the issue altogether, even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a video address last week, had used the same forum to deliver an ultimatum for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines within a year.
If his own personal politics held sway in his government, Bennett would be seeking to annex large parts of the disputed West Bank. If some of his partners’ ideologies determined policy, the coalition would be backing Palestinian statehood. But since his improbable, eight-party, left-right-center-Arab alliance can only govern by consensus, clear positions on the Palestinian front, acceptable to all his coalition partners, would have been difficult to formulate.
But that did not require ignoring the contentious issue altogether and leaving a vacuum for Israel’s critics to fill. For a start, Bennett could have invoked Israel’s foundational Declaration of Independence, with its commitment to an extended hand seeking peace in the neighborhood.
In his UN General Assembly address last year, Netanyahu referenced the Palestinians in the context of the fresh Abraham Accords. “The expanding circle of peace will not make an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians less likely,” said Netanyahu. “It will make peace between Israelis and Palestinians more likely. Palestinian leaders will increasingly realize that they no longer have a veto over peace and progress in our region, and hopefully, those leaders will ultimately decide to make peace with the Jewish state.”
Indeed, his predecessor consistently found language to express a desire for peace, even when castigating Palestinian rejectionism and eschewing support for a two-state solution, and even if his assurances were often greeted skeptically.
But Bennett, as his maiden UN speech made crystal clear, is in no mood to take inspiration from Netanyahu.
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