Up until Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly on Thursday, one might have thought Israel was celebrating the events at the United Nations this week.
“Obama spoke clearly in his speech,” Netanyahu told the Israeli press, “about Israel as a Jewish state.” To Israel’s Channel 2 news he said, “The president said let’s come and resume the peace process without preconditions. As you know I have been saying that for nearly six months. I was happy.” To ABC he said, “The president assured me time and again that the goal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. And I think that’s the right goal.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also lauded the absence or walkout of about a dozen countries from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech. As Lieberman told the Israeli press, “What happened…at the UN assembly is a great victory and an achievement [for] Israeli diplomacy—the majority of the free world left the auditorium, thanks to our determination on the Iranian issue since the ‘Durban 2’ conference. If we had to work hard there, run around and convince the countries not to listen to Ahmadinejad’s speech, this time it was much easier for us. The free world’s response was natural and did not take a lot of effort.”
Also praised by some as a breakthrough was Obama’s statement before his three-way photo-op with Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas that “The Israelis…need to act to restrain activities in the settlements”—indeed a softer and more equivocal formulation than Hillary Clinton’s assertion just last May that Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” or Obama’s own pronouncement a few days later in Cairo that “It is time for these settlements to stop.”
At the same time, it wasn’t difficult to see a darker dimension of the week’s events. Walking out on a speech, for instance, by a Holocaust-denying despot is easy; but there was also the fact that he was there, walking free and (by most) honored, after years of violating international law by repeatedly inciting genocide and referring to a UN member state with such choice terms as “rotting corpse” and “filthy germ”—years in which no legal action has been taken and instead he’s been plied, and keeps being plied, with Western suitors treating him and his regime as a potentially reasonable interlocutor interested in peace.
And while it is also true that some of Obama’s remarks about Israel reflect an easing of the confrontational stance he started taking last spring, he had other things to say that were less comforting—such as, in his most-applauded statement, that “we continue to emphasize that American does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” Combining this with a call for a “Palestinian state…that ends the occupation that began in 1967” is not supportive of Israel or even impartial but is, instead, a delegitimization of the very Israeli claims to the disputed territory that are supposed to be the subject of negotiation, as well as a falsification of history implying that Israel “occupied” the strategically vital territory out of the blue instead of capturing it in a war of survival.
Some of the cheery spin that Netanyahu and other Israelis put on this busy week at the UN was finally belied, however, by Netanyahu’s own speech. Not surprisingly, cautious and diplomatic as always regarding Israel’s superpower ally, the Israeli leader never so much as mentioned Obama; the UN itself was another matter.
Noting that “Yesterday the president of Iran stood at this podium spewing anti-Semitic rants” and “Just a few days earlier…claimed the Holocaust is a lie,” Netanyahu went so far as to display a facsimile of the Wannsee protocols for the Final Solution and, as he put it, “the original construction plans for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp,” and continued: “For those who refused to come [to Ahmadinejad’s speech], and those who left in protest—I commend you…. But for those who stayed…what a disgrace, what a mockery of the charter of the UN.”
Sounding much less sanguine on whether Iran would be stopped, Netanyahu, after noting that “the greatest threat facing the world today is the marriage between religious fanaticism and weapons of mass destruction,” went on to ask: “Is the UN up to that? Will the international community stand up to the despotism of a government against its own people?” His own answer, in a far more somber key, was “The jury is still out on the UN. Recent signs are not encouraging.”
Netanyahu became, if anything, even more bitter in turning to the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report that condemns Israel for finally defending itself against terror from Gaza, noting that, in “eight years of unremitting assault…not one UN resolution was passed condemning Hamas rocket attacks on Israel…life in the Israeli towns and cities near Gaza became nothing less than a nightmare. Hamas attacks increased tenfold after we withdrew [from Gaza], and again, the UN was silent, absolutely silent.”
After warning that a failure to reject the report would mean “the UN would revert to its darkest age—when Zionism was equated with racism,” and claiming that “The biased and unjust report provided a clear-cut test to all governments—will you stand with Israel or with the terrorists?,” Netanyahu concluded with some relatively anodyne words about Israel’s desire for peace and his readiness for an “effectively demilitarized” Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s reversion to calmer, more or less rote formulations on the Palestinians was, indeed, appropriate insofar as the tripartite meeting with Abbas and Obama was no more than a ceremony at a time when mounting Palestinian rejectionism obviates any chance of conciliation. On much more pressing issues of whether Israel would be allowed to fight terror, and whether the world was really planning to do anything about Iran, Netanyahu—the real Netanyahu, and one could say, the real Israel—disclosed more bitterness than hope.