NEW YORK – Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressed the UN General Assembly for the first time, barely 100 days after he was sworn in and ended Benjamin Netanyahu's more than decade-long premiership.
"For way too long, Israel was defined by wars with our neighbors," Bennett said in his address. "But this is not what Israel is about. This is not what the people of Israel are about. Israelis don’t wake up in the morning thinking about the conflict. Israelis want to lead a good life, take care of our families, and build a better world for our children."
Bennett warned the assembly that two problems – the coronavirus and political polarization – were "challenging the very fabric of society at this moment" and have the ability to "paralyze nations."
Israel, Bennett said, had rejected polarization by forming the government he leads. "What started as a political accident, can now turn into a purpose," Bennett said. "And that purpose is unity. Today we sit together, around one table. We speak to each other with respect, we act with decency, and we carry a message: Things can be different."
As for the pandemic, Bennett said Israel had successfully developed a model for managing it by rejecting lockdowns and embracing booster shots. "Lockdowns, restrictions, quarantines – cannot work in the long run," he said. The government's decision to begin providing booster shots was a tough one, given the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hadn't approved them, but it ultimately paid off, Bennett stated, saying that Israel "pioneered the booster shot."
Turning to the issue of Iran, Bennett blamed Tehran for funding, training and arming groups that "seek to dominate the Middle East and spread radical Islam across the world," as well as to destroy Israel. Furthermore, he said, Iran is trying to dominate the region by stretching its presence into Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza, and "[e]very place Iran touches – fails."
Bennett also warned that Iran's nuclear weapons program had "hit a watershed moment, and so has our patience," saying that Tehran has crossed all red lines and ignored international inspections. "Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning," he said.
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Bennett took the opportunity to criticize countries that took part in a commemoration marking the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action.
"And to those countries who chose to participate in this farce, I say': Attacking Israel doesn’t make you morally superior, fighting the only democracy in the Middle East doesn’t make you "woke", adopting clichés about Israel without bothering to learn the basic facts, well, that's just plain lazy," he said.
The prime minister did not address the Palestinian issue after last week’s UN speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who delivered a one-year ultimatum to Israel to withdraw to pre-1967 borders.
Netanyahu’s Likud party quickly issued a statement criticizing Bennett’s speech and extolling his predecessor. “Netanyahu's speeches at the UN made waves all around the world and brought Israel's political interests to the forefront of international attention,” read the statement. “Unlike him, Bennet gave an empty speech in front of an empty hall and wasted empty words, instead of taking advantage of an important international platform.”
The Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, told Palestinian radio station Ashams that Bennett had ignored not just the Palestinians, but also the international community, in his speech. "We will act on all fronts, especially the Security Council and the International Criminal Court and all the countries of the world, but the anchor will be the Palestinian people's unity and its hold on its land," he said. "The world remembers well what happened in May in the lands of Palestine," including within Israel's pre-1967 borders, Mansour added, referring to Jewish-Arab violence and rioting earlier this year during a military confrontation between Israel and Hamas.
On Sunday, Bennett met in New York with Bahraini Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani and UAE Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Khalifa Shaheen Almara. He is also slated to meet with the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as well as with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and representatives of the Jewish community.
Jack Khoury contributed to this report.