Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words

During Netanyahu’s jarring 44-second pause, the stillness in the hall was tangible; it was a powerful moment in a speech that otherwise broke no new ground

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly, October 1, 2015. (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly, October 1, 2015. (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

UNITED NATIONS — “You know they say actions speak louder than words. But in Iran’s case the words speak as loud as the actions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly on Thursday, going on to quote Iranian leaders vowing to destroy Israel.

Netanyahu’s speech will not be remembered for the words it contained nor for any actions that might follow it. What stood out in his 45-minute address was a long moment of silence, with which he loudly rebuked the nations of the world for having remained silent during the Holocaust and for continuing to remain silent in the face of a “genocidal” Iran.

There are several constants at Netanyahu’s UN speeches, and they were all present this time, too: Sheldon Adelson and Shmuley Boteach as applause leaders; visual props (this time around — a book by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei); the bombastic metaphors (“unleashed and unmuzzled, Iran will go on the prowl, devouring more and more prey”); the rhetorical shtick (warning the world not to sweep Iranian misdeeds “under the Persian rug”); the insider baseball reference (he mentioned the recently deceased New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra). But it was the jarring halt mid-speech, the reproachful intermission, that yielded the day’s most powerful moment.

Netanyahu laid into the international community for responding to Ayatollah Khamenei’s ominous assertion that Israel won’t exist in 25 years with complete indifference — as if the Iranian leader had announced a health reform or new climate change initiative.

The tension in the plenum was tangible. There was no moaning and no sneering

“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 has been absolutely nothing,” Netanyahu thundered. “Utter silence. Deafening silence.”

Then he demonstrated with silence, deafening silence, saying absolutely nothing during 44 seconds that felt like an eternity. The tension in the plenum was tangible. There was no moaning and no sneering. Only absolute silence. For a moment it seemed as if the diplomats present were actually reflecting on the world’s dismal track record regarding the Jewish people.

The Israelis were clearly pleased with how the 44-second pause went over. Half an hour after the speech, a senior official could be spotted strolling around the UN premises humming Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.”

On the other hand, some pundits described Netanyahu’s moment of silence as “creepy,” and it’s difficult to say whether the officials in the hall were genuinely moved or simply shut up out of politeness.

Netanyahu referred to the Holocaust several times more, hoping to hammer home that Israel will never allow it to reoccur. But the repetition might actually have reduced the impact of his message, and its doubtful that the speech, however powerful, rendered UN delegates more sympathetic to his policies. It’s a safe bet that he failed to convince the world to disavow the Iran deal or persuade unconvinced listeners that he’s sincere about his desire for renewed and productive peace talks with the Palestinians. “More of the same,” the UN delegates will probably cable to their capitals, “though he also gave us the silent treatment.”

Netanyahu vehemently attacked the Iran deal with the usual arguments, asserted that it will not prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon but will merely increase its appetite for aggression.

He vowed to defend Israel against any threats, to continue to “respond forcefully” to any attacks from Syria, and to prevent the smuggling of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah. He declared his willingness to make peace with the Palestinians but made no concrete steps toward the goal, blaming Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the stalemate.

Even his homage to Israel’s hope for “lasting partnerships” with its Arab neighbors was neither novel nor particularly credible. He made similar declarations in his previous two UN appearances. But as long as there’s no light at end of the interminable tunnel that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the moderate Arab states Netanyahu is wooing won’t drop their anti-Israel rhetoric, let alone acknowledge cooperating with the Zionist entity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pauses in silence as he addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly October 1, 2015 at the United Nations in New York (AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pauses in silence as he addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York City, October 1, 2015. (AFP/Don Emmert

Netanyahu did make a very cogent point, when he entreated the world powers to take the restrictions placed on Iran after the nuclear deal more seriously than they took the restrictions placed on Iran before the accord was signed.

“As this deal with Iran moves ahead, I hope you’ll enforce it… how can I put this? With a little more rigor than you showed with the six Security Council resolutions that Iran has systematically violated and which now have been effectively discarded,” he said dryly.

Signaling that he has accepted that the Iran deal is actually going to be implemented, he made three suggestions that are hard to argue with.
“First, make Iran comply with all its nuclear obligations. Keep Iran’s feet to the fire. Second, check Iran’s regional aggression. Support and strengthen those fighting Iran’s aggression, beginning with Israel. Third, use sanctions and all the tools available to you to tear down Iran’s global terror network.”

It’s easy to dismiss his declared readiness to immediately resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians as mere lip service. It’s easy to be bored by his argument that the nuclear deal won’t solve any problems but rather will provide “theocratic Iran with sharper claws and sharper fangs.”

But it’s hard to disagree with Netanyahu’s assertion that now that the Iran agreement is a done deal, the world must not become complacent about a regime that adamantly persists in its aggressive behavior.

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