Netanyahu’s Speeches at the UN: Iran in Return for Peace

Haaretz examined the focus of the prime minister's previous speeches ahead of his UN address.

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Prime Minister Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb at the UN General Assembly in September 2012.
Prime Minister Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb at the UN General Assembly in September 2012.Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

NEW YORK – There is nothing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes more than giving a speech. And it’s even better when the speech is in English in front of a foreign audience, and even more so when it's on the most important international stage, the United Nations General Assembly in New York. But as far as Netanyahu is concerned, this is not just a hobby: He is a great believer in the power of rhetoric and the importance of words. For him, the speech is the act. His address to the United States Congress, which launched his campaign against the nuclear agreement with Iran, was the best example of this.

Netanyahu has spoken five times to the General Assembly since he returned to the premiership in 2009. Once, in 2010, he missed the event and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman took his place – and gave a speech in opposition to Netanyahu’s policy on the Palestinian issue, causing the prime minister and Israel a great deal of embarrassment. We can assume this is one of the reasons that since then Netanyahu has been careful to keep this pleasure to himself.

He is no different from many other world leaders, who when they stand at the podium at the UN are facing the representatives of the nations of the world but in reality are speaking for the internal consumption of their audience back at home. There is a good reason that Netanyahu’s speech every year is timed for the peak viewing hours on local television, centered around the main news shows.

Every year, Netanyahu and his advisers build up expectations before his speech. Once they said that he will tell the truth to the world and another time they said it will be a powerful, resolute or intense speech. We must add the latest gimmicks to all this, such as the famous bomb cartoon. This year, too, in a talk with journalists during the flight to New York, he promised a “surprise.”

Before his speech Thursday to the UN General Assembly, Haaretz examined what issues Netanyahu has spoken about in his previous five speeches to the UN. We used as a measure the number of times he repeated certain words or phrases dealing with a specific issue in his speeches. The data has produced a few interesting conclusions about Netanyahu’s diplomatic and public relations agenda, and about the issues he has seen as important over the past six years.

Prominent words used by PM Netanyahu in past speeches to UNCredit: Haaretz

You don’t need to be a big expert on Netanyahu’s speeches or to examine them in depth in order to guess what has been the main issue he has mentioned in these speeches to the UN: the Iranian nuclear issue. For example, Netanyahu has used the word “Iran” 167 times in the various speeches. He used the phrase “nuclear weapons,” or related ones such as “atomic bomb,” “uranium,” “plutonium,” “enrichment” or “centrifuges” 182 times. Netanyahu mentioned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif 30 times, and used the word “sanctions” concerning Iran 19 times.

But the data also reveal that Netanyahu only started dealing with the Iran nuclear issue in a major way starting in his speech in 2012 – the famous “red line” speech. During that speech he used the word “Iran” 54 times and the various nuclear weapons terms another 86 times. In his two previous speeches to the UN General Assembly, the Iranian issue was quite marginal. In his 2009 speech Netanyahu used the word Iran only 10 times, and only twice mentioned nuclear weapons. In 2011 he mentioned Iran only nine times, and nuclear weapons only three times.

What was the reason for this dramatic change? Why starting in 2012 was there a steep increase in Netanyahu’s handling of the Iranian issue during his UN speeches?

The answers to these questions may possibly be found in some things former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the authors of his biography, whose recordings were recently leaked to and played on Channel 2. Barak said that since 2009, every summer or fall the question of whether Israel should attack Iranian nuclear facilities has been raised. Barak said that in 2009, 2010 and 2012 the IDF received clear instructions from Netanyahu to prepare for such a strike in Iran, and twice – in 2010 and 2011 – Netanyahu was on the verge of giving the order and called a meeting of the defense cabinet to approve such an attack. Barak says that starting in the fall of 2012, the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran was no longer relevant.

Key words in PM Netanyahu's past speeches to UN Credit: Haaretz

The data on Netanyahu’s UN speeches raise the possibility that as long as he thought an Israeli attack on Iran was a real option, he avoided speaking about it publicly in a major way at the General Assembly, which is held at the end of September every year – exactly the same period that foreign news reports say the Israel Air Force enjoys a window of opportunity and the best conditions for carrying out such an attack.

Once Netanyahu understood that the possibility of sending planes to bomb Iran was no longer an option, he started bombing the Iranians and the international community with words, instead.

Somewhat surprisingly, possibly, one of the issues Netanyahu concentrated on quite a bit in his UN speeches was the peace process, which he mentioned 106 times in his five speeches. The use of the word “peace” became more sparing as hopes for negotiations with the Palestinians faded. In his speech in 2009, Netanyahu used the word “peace” 28 times, and in 2011 said it 44 times. In the last three speeches, he mentioned the word only 34 times in total.

A similar thing happened to the phrases “Palestinian state” and “Jewish state,” which Netanyahu has used quite a lot in these speeches to the UN. In 2009 and 2011, he mentioned the “Jewish state” a total of 27 times and the “Palestinian state” 19 times. In the last three years he has mentioned the Jewish state 13 times, and a Palestinian state only three times.

Another issue that repeats itself in Netanyahu’s UN speeches is the Holocaust. He has mentioned it a total of 55 times in his five speeches to the General Assembly. In his first speech in 2009, Netanyahu mentioned the Holocaust – or other related phrases such as Nazism, Auschwitz and concentration camps – no less than 36 times.

It is also interesting to see what issues have almost not appeared at all in Netanyahu’s UN speeches, even though they directly affect Israel’s national security and influence the lives of millions of Israeli citizens. For example, in his four speeches from 2009 to 2013, Netanyahu mentioned Hamas only five times. It would seem that this was something that didn’t really interest him. In his 2014 speech, a few weeks after the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during the summer, he mentioned Hamas 27 times.

As for Hezbollah, one of the bigger threats to Israel, Netanyahu has mentioned the organization only three times in total in all his five speeches to the General Assembly.

In his speech Thursday, Netanyahu will continue to deal with Iran and the nuclear agreement; he will speak about the Temple Mount and say he wants peace. But the impression we get from examining his previous speeches is that Netanyahu has a diplomatic and public relations agenda that does not match, or at the very least is not proportionally synchronized with, the central national security issues of Israel. Mostly he deals with a specific issue in his UN speeches only after it has already occurred. We can only hope that next year we will not hear Netanyahu mentioning Hezbollah 27 times in his speech to the General Assembly.

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