Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an accomplished veteran of United Nations General Assemblies, a reliably eloquent orator, whose team devotes immense time and effort to formulating his annual appearances at the global podium. Unlike some of his Israeli prime ministerial predecessors, his English is flawless. He never stumbles over his words. He never mangles those carefully constructed sentences.
And so it was on Tuesday, at the Assembly’s 72nd session. The difference, this time, was in the prime minister’s air of assurance.
He has never been short of self-belief. But Netanyahu spoke not as the embittered outsider protesting the world body’s history of anti-Israel bias, not as the friendless target of our region’s aggressors, and not as the exasperated lone voice despairing at his peers’ refusal to interpret current affairs with his wisdom. Netanyahu spoke, rather, with the ultra-confident mien of a national leader who believes the tide of history is turning toward him and his country.
One key factor in that dramatically elevated level of confidence, of course, is the change of US presidency since the last such gathering. Where president Barack Obama championed the Iranian nuclear accord, pushed a reluctant Netanyahu relentlessly for compromise with the Palestinians, and voted an extremely discomfiting resolution through the United Nations Security Council, President Donald Trump shares his horror at the nuclear deal, has made no public demands of Netanyahu regarding the Palestinians, and is determined to reform the UN’s anti-Israel obsessions.
Another major cause of the prime minister’s undisguised sense of growing vindication, as he made plain in his speech, is the simple fact that he is finding a friendly welcome among numerous countries around the world that are gradually recognizing how much of a powerhouse Israel has become in areas central to their national well-being — innovation, technological advances, intel, counter-terrorism and more.
After Trump’s trip to Israel in May, unprecedentedly early in a US president’s term, and the visit of India’s Prime Minister Modi in July, it was the icing on the cake, on the eve of this speech, for Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to agree to a first-ever public meeting with him — the rare, overt acknowledgement of an Israeli-Arab partnership, complete with smiling photographs, proof positive of Netanyahu’s oft-stressed conviction that the rest of the region is gradually warming to the Jewish state.
Thus the ultra-confident Netanyahu was able to laugh off the UN’s recent history of Israel-related ridiculousnesses — from the World Health Organization to UNESCO. “Is there no limit to the UN’s absurdities when it comes to Israel?” he asked. “Well, apparently not…”
Thus the prime minister could deride Obama’s beloved Iran deal, insist that it be fixed or nixed, and set out his formula for fixing it — including tougher inspections, penalizing every violation, and, centrally, scrapping the expiring “sunset” clauses at the heart of the accord. He had doubtless discussed the very same ideas just a day earlier with an at least theoretically receptive President Trump.
And thus the prime minister could essay his speech’s boldest gambit — appealing directly to the people of Iran over the heads of their dictatorial supreme leader, including with a smattering of Persian. Ayatollah Khamenei and his regime endlessly seek and predict Israel’s demise. In his riposte, in his “message today for the people of Iran,” Netanyahu was explicitly predicting the demise of the ayatollahs, assuring the oppressed citizenry that “one day my, Iranian friends, you will be free from the evil regime that terrorizes you,” and that “when that day of liberation finally comes, the friendship between our two ancient peoples will surely flourish once again.”
Quoting Isaiah describing Israel as “a light unto the nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth,” Netanyahu sounded like the leader of a superpower. For all its innovative prowess and astonishing resilience, Israel isn’t quite that. But for the first time in his lengthy prime ministership, Netanyahu feels himself utterly allied to the leader of a superpower, as the swagger of his speech made emphatically clear — and entirely unconcerned by any reservations others may have about that US president.
Israel’s prime minister is almost as divisive at home as President Trump is in the United States. He comes back to Jerusalem from this speech to a welter of investigations into alleged corruption, all of which he firmly denies. But at the UN, for a few minutes on Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with the air of a leader on the global stage who felt, finally, that his time had come.