Every October, I anticipate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) address with a morbid curiosity. Not because of any naïve expectation that he’ll say anything new or actionable, but to witness the latest degree of disconnect between his well-honed message, and the realities inside the General Assembly Hall and around our evolving world.
This past year, as the world has evolved dramatically in ways both encouraging and disturbing, the gap between Netanyahu’s words and what constitutes reality for most of the world will be even wider and more obvious than usual.
Immediately after Netanyahu’s speech, Germany’s foreign minister will also be addressing the UNGA. After extensively confronting and atoning for the un-atonable Holocaust, Germany has recently turned a corner in the Maimonidean path to repentance. Finding itself in an analogous situation, where prevailing bias might lead it to persecute or expel foreign refugees, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Germany would accept 800,000 refugees in the coming year; the number may get reduced for logistical reasons, but the fact that the Germany of today is leading the way points to a new level of redemption.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu publicly declined to accept any Syrian refugees, noting that Israel is “a very small country”. That’s a fair response, though hardly the Jewish state’s finest moment. The comparison to the Third Reich’s successor (i.e., modern Germany) is painful; Germany was under no obligation to authorize so many refugees, nor to take the moral high ground within the European Union. And Israel’s recent tensions with African migrants and refugees, from expulsions to racist rallies by government ministers, have been an embarrassment to many Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani UNGA speech played off the widely supported nuclear deal, and he even played nice — criticizing Israel, but not the United States. And this time, fewer leaders and diplomats will be embarrassed by his anti-Israel remarks, because 1) Rouhani comes across far more amiably than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and 2) Iran just cut a major arms-control deal with the world’s leading powers. Netanyahu’s has been and remains the lone voice among his counterparts denouncing the deal, which is already a done deal. He stands out for this reason, in defiance of friend and foe, and the entire international system. Even he genuinely felt it incumbent to do so, it wouldn’t change the reality.
Instead, Netanyahu will double down, reminding the delegations of Iran’s ongoing role in fomenting subversion and terror across the world
Enter Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose delegation yesterday raised their flag for the first time at the United Nations. Had Netanyahu done more to bolster Abbas rather than his Hamas opponents, and had he made more effort to hold off expanding West Bank settlements during the uphill talks — or had he seized the initiative to push the Palestinian Authority into accepting the full burdens of statehood — perhaps he could have stood by Abbas’ side at “Flagpole Row”.
Instead, Netanyahu will be focusing much of his remarks on the evils of the Palestinian Authority, and the audacity of Abbas to renounce the 1993 Oslo Accords. Not only will this fall flat with the world audience, by making himself appear obsessive and obstinate, Netanyahu will boost sympathy for Abbas and possibly reverse the decline of his power over the Palestinians. Should there be any confusion, Netanyahu is also leaving behind his brand-new UN ambassador, Danny Danon, who is repeatedly on record renouncing the Oslo Accords and territorial compromise.
After standing idly by many months ago, alone among Western nations, as Russia first annexed Crimea and then invaded Eastern Ukraine, it will be a bit hollow for Netanyahu to now raise concerns about Russia’s latest incursion into Syria. And should he make any more sideways references to President Obama as Chamberlain, and the Iran deal as “Munich”, Netanyahu’s silence on Crimea — Europe’s modern-day Sudetenland — it will be noted that Netanyahu said nothing and Obama took a stand.
As always, Netanyahu will recall the Holocaust in support of his own issues: Attacking the Iran deal as enabling a second genocide of the Jews, likening European boycotts of Israel and the West Bank to Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops, and simply reasserting the right of the survivors’ descendants to defend themselves. The fact that his White House visit is scheduled for November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, will probably work itself into his remarks over the coming weeks, too. But whether it’s the refugees or Ukraine, Netanyahu will deny comparisons to the Holocaust, with the implication that only Israel gets to invoke that chapter in support of its own (or Netanyahu’s own) priorities.
Using the Holocaust to advance one’s own objectives, and presumably those of one’s country, is the opposite of a free pass. It raises your own bar and demands a greater degree of outside scrutiny, because it’s fundamentally a heavy burden and responsibility. It’s the Holocaust, a moral trough for all humanity, and it should mean something more than just making life easier for the Jewish State — as appealing as that proposition is.
Netanyahu won’t really care what the delegates in the UNGA Hall think of his remarks; his target audience is back home and across the “real America” that thinks he’s been too soft on the Palestinians, and that Obama is a Muslim. He won’t even really care what President Obama thinks. The same day Netanyahu visits Obama, he’ll also be visiting his version of authentic America, addressing the American Enterprise Institute and accepting its Irving Kristol Award. The late Irving Kristol was a neo-conservative icon, whose son Bill runs the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Republican-affiliated campaign founded to undercut Jewish support for Obama (guess who the “emergency” is).
If Netanyahu were serious about repairing the damage from his all-out charge against the Iran deal, he would not be keeping Likud/GOP strategist Ron Dermer as his Ambassador to Washington, and he would not be toasting Obama’s right-wing Jewish critics on the same night he expects to win back the President’s trust.
Netanyahu’s speech will be the same as every speech he’s ever delivered: Not intended to convince anyone, but to reinforce the ideological belief among his supporters, that he speaks truth to power, and that it doesn’t matter who’s listening. And yes, the Holocaust.