What Naftali Bennett Didn’t Say at the United Nations
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Naftali Bennett’s speech on Monday at the United Nations General Assembly marked his debut on the world stage. He had a tough act to follow. For more than a decade, his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, made his annual appearances an occasion, filled with drama and fury at those who were feckless in the face of threats to the Jewish state. He illustrated these talks with cardboard visual aids, like a lecturer addressing a class of dim students.
Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu was not popular with the UN audience. Often the delegates of enemy countries walked out in protest. Bennett didn’t have that problem, largely because of timing and circumstance. The Jewish holidays in September forced him into a speaking slot early on the last morning of the annual meeting. Most leaders were already gone or attending on Zoom. Netanyahu would have insisted on prime time, of course.
Israeli pundits predicted a hum-drum speech. They were mistaken. Prime Minister Bennett’s speech was remarkable for what he said and what he left out.
Bennett, like Netanyahu a fluent English speaker, was determined to appear as the non-Netanyahu, and he succeeded. As a successful hi-tech entrepreneur, he had been a famously effective salesman. He wasn’t there to insult his listeners. His demeanor was relaxed and informal.
For the first time in memory, an Israeli prime minister did not so much as mention the Palestinian issue. This was a calculated omission, made possible by President Biden’s remark earlier this month that, as far as he’s concerned, the solution to the Palestinian issue is a long way off.
This is true. Biden has made clear that he doesn’t want to get embroiled in the issue. As a result, the Israeli prime minister saw an opportunity to try to decouple Israel from the issue of what the UN calls the State of Palestine. Israel, he told the delegates, is not all about the conflict. It is a normal, democratic society where civilians want to raise their kids in peace, but are occasionally called upon to defend themselves against enemies.
He is all for making peace with his neighbors. He cited Egypt, Jordan and the countries of the Abraham Accords struck by Netanyahu, including Morocco, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He didn't mention Saudi Arabia, but it is on his mind. Lately, officials and business leaders say off-record that they sense the Kingdom is warming up to Israel once again. There are concessions Bennett will make to move the process along, but they will not include steps toward Palestinian sovereignty. As far as he is concerned, it is a domestic Israeli issue and none of the world’s business.
Bennett is helped in this approach by the recent vote in the House of Representatives. Progressives opposed to the funding, supposedly a rising force in the Democratic Party, tried to block the sale of defensive weapons to Israel and lost by a huge bipartisan majority of 420 to 9. Support for Israel remains one of the very few issues that elicits such broad support.
Bennett was also buoyed by the recent failure of Durban IV, the UN's recurring "human rights" conference. Thirty-eight countries, led by Israel and the U.S., boycotted the event, which has a well-earned reputation for radical anti-Semitism. "The world has had enough of this," Bennett said. "Fighting the only democracy in the Middle East doesn't make you morally superior or 'woke,'" he said.
Only toward the end of his speech did Bennett return to Israel's obsession with the threat posed by Iran. He echoed Netanyahu’s promise that Israel will not allow the Islamic Republic to obtain nuclear weapons, but refrained from overt threats. He warned about Iran’s plan to arm its proxies with thousands of lethal drones. He said Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries that have fallen under Iranian influence are now failed states.
Bennett also reminded the world that Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, was a brutal thug who, back in the revolutionary days, had been a presiding judge in the mass hanging of political dissidents. Raisi, said Bennett, robbed the victims and used the money to throw sumptuous feasts that included cream cakes for dessert. “He devoured the cream cakes of his own people,” Bennett said indignantly.
For Israelis, it was a bizarrely endearing moment for a young prime minister who, while determined to cut a more conciliatory figure both in Israeli politics and on the world stage than Netanyahu, has the same steady eye on security that no Israeli leader can afford to neglect.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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