Netanyahu Lost Sense of What Would Best Serve Israel's Interests in a UN Speech

The prime minister's address would have been perfect at a Jewish federation dinner, but didn’t work at all at the United Nations.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly on October 1, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly on October 1, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Benjamin Netanyahu laid an egg with his United Nations General Assembly speech on Thursday.

It’s not that he gave a terrible speech. Mr. Netanyahu is a superb speaker and a master wordsmith, and I have never heard him give a bad major address. The problem is that what he had to say on Thursday would have been perfect at a Jewish federation dinner or an Israel Bonds event, but didn’t work at all at the United Nations.

A good speech in one setting can be disastrous in another. In this instance, the prime minister seemed to lose all sense of what, in this particular place, would best serve Israel’s interests.

To be sure, there is a case to be made that the yearly parade of speakers at the General Assembly is pretty much a waste of time for all concerned. Most of the addresses are irrelevant, boring and ignored by both the press and the public, certainly in the United States.

Still, given the attention—mostly negative—that Israel continues to attract at the United Nations, not to mention Netanyahu’s abilities as an orator and the importance that he himself attaches to these addresses, it would be a mistake to ignore the impact that the prime minister of the Jewish state might have if his words are carefully chosen. In this case, alas, they were not.

It was to be expected, of course, that Netanyahu would have something to say about Iran. Iran is a bad actor of monstrous proportions. It was unthinkable that the prime minister would not remind the nations of the world of the threat that Iran poses to Israel. But what was not expected was that Netanyahu would devote two-thirds of a 40-minute speech to Iran, covering ground that he has covered time and again.

The issue is not only, or even primarily, that the rest of the world has moved on to other topics, with Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and Syria being at the top of the list. The real issue is that Netanyahu was emphasizing precisely the same points that he has been using for months in his campaign against U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to support the Iran nuclear deal. While he later praised the President and noted that their differences on the Iranian deal are differences “within the family,” his speech was constructed in such a way as to remind all concerned just how bitter the quarrel with Obama has been and how differently the two men saw the nuclear deal. And he was doing so in a forum where Israel’s standing is dependent almost entirely on its historically intimate relationship with the United States of America.

The speech was also uncomfortably defensive. While attempting to sound proud and assertive, it managed to convey precisely the opposite impression by noting a long list of accomplishments in agriculture, technology, medicine and business. Israel, the world leaders were told, has perfected “the delicious cherry tomato,” is a country of “ingenuity” and “innovation,” and continues to make “a huge contribution to the entire world.” It is hard to know what to make of this. It was almost as though the prime minister of Israel were justifying Israel’s existence, which needs no justification at all. Israel is a country that has returned sovereignty to the Jewish people and that defends her citizens against all who would do them harm. Period. It makes not the slightest difference whether Israel has perfected the cherry tomato or not.

Finally, Mr. Netanyahu mentioned peace between Israel and Palestine only at the very end of his comments. This was a monumental mistake. Whether he likes it or not, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of the UN agenda, and no leader of Israel can hope to make an impact at UN forums if what he says on peace with the Palestinians sounds more like an afterthought than a major concern.

Netanyahu’s words on the need for a regional approach to the problem were well chosen, and his complaints about UN mistreatment of Israel were perfectly reasonable. Still, his call for peace lacked both the passion and the specificity that the occasion required. He could have spoken far more urgently than he did about his sympathy for Palestinian national aspirations. And he could have offered some new ideas on moving forward as a signal to skeptical allies that he is sincere in his commitment to a two-state solution.

In light of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ mean-spirited address of the day before, this was a time for Netanyahu to present himself on the Palestinian question as the serious statesman and peacemaker—and his failure to do a better job of this was an opportunity missed.

Israel does not have many friends at the United Nations, but she has some, and they all expect progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The prime minister of Israel, of course, is entitled to raise all of the issues that impact Israel’s security and future, but in planning his address for next year, Mr. Netanyahu might want to consider this fundamental fact: If he is not convincing and creative on Israeli-Palestinian peace, there is hardly any point in attending the General Assembly at all.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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