If Naftali Bennett really wanted to prove that his premiership was fundamentally different from Benjamin Netanyahu’s, his office should have announced that he wouldn’t be going to New York to speak at the UN General Assembly. Few major world leaders took the trouble this year; most made do with a prerecorded speech, and the trip couldn’t even be justified by the meetings Bennett would be holding on the sidelines.
Last year’s General Assembly was held virtually due to the pandemic, and this didn’t seem to affect global affairs. But Bennett is a newly elected prime minister, and since he only has two years in office until he has to make way for Yair Lapid, perhaps it’s understandable that he didn’t want to miss the opportunity.
After so many years when Netanyahu surrounded these pointless events with so much hype, we can finally come to terms with reality – it’s just a speech. At least Bennett managed to prove to Israelis, most of whom can't remember the last time a different prime minister represented Israel at the United Nations, that you don’t have to be a Netanyahu to stand at the podium and mouth empty platitudes in English for 25 minutes. Just for that we can be thankful.
And as cliché-riddled speeches go, it was up there with the best. Bennett didn’t miss any of them – we have “the only democracy in the Middle East,” “the startup nation,” “a tough neighborhood” and the “beacon in the storm” (twice). Bennett and his speechwriters swallowed the hasbara PR handbook whole and failed to come up with anything new save for the rather weak pun – “the mullahs’ touch, whatever they touch fails” – when describing Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
At least they saved us one hasbara cliché when they failed to mention how the “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Only this wasn’t a failure. Bennett is doubling down on Netanyahu’s achievement of pushing the Palestinian issue to the margins of the global agenda, and his speech didn’t mention Israel’s greatest historical challenge even once. So much for his policy of “shrinking the conflict” – now he’s trying to make the conflict disappear altogether.
But that was to be expected, and reporters had been briefed in advance. Ignoring the Palestinian issue will remain a hallmark of Bennett’s approach, until it inevitably comes back to bite him, as it always does.
What was more surprising was that while Iran got its own chapter in the address, in which Bennett rather bizarrely twice said the new Iranian president would be eating “cream cakes” after issuing death sentences, Iran didn’t occupy the central place in his speech, as it did in all of Netanyahu’s. In the few minutes dedicated to Iran, Bennett preferred to stress how Tehran was spreading drone technology throughout the region.
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On Iran’s nuclear program he was much more vague. “Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning,” he warned. But if not words, what will stop Iran from enriching uranium? Apparently, “if we put our heads to it, if we’re serious about stopping it, if we use all our resourcefulness, we can prevail.” That’s it.
Instead of talking about Iran, Bennett preferred to provide the world with a detailed account of his government’s campaign against COVID-19. But even here, after listing his three rules for fighting the coronavirus, Bennett admitted that basically it was all “trial and error .... Every day is a new day, with new data and new decisions. When something works, we keep it. When it doesn’t, we ditch it.”
So how does he expect the world to learn anything from what Israel is doing to face the pandemic if Israel may ditch its latest idea at any moment?
But we have to give Bennett some latitude here. After all, as he admitted in his speech’s most candid moment, his government “started as a political accident.” That accident may now “turn into a purpose” and prove to the world that a difference of opinion doesn’t have to lead to “a polarized world where algorithms fuel our anger, people on the right and on the left operate in two separate realities, each in their own social media bubble. They hear only the voices that confirm what they already believe in.” And, unless the Palestinians are involved, people don’t have to “end up hating each other.”
After all, accidents, especially political ones, can lead to all kinds of outcomes. In Bennett’s case, he ended up addressing the United Nations, by accident.