Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped into the UN headquarters in New York on Monday and found it nearly empty. This year, as last year, Netanyahu had arrived after the party had ended. The leaders of the larger countries had addressed the General Assembly last week and left, and Netanyahu found himself speaking to the foreign ministers of Liechtenstein, Iceland and Bahrain.
The General Assembly plenum was mostly empty, and the diplomats who were there sank into their chairs and looked bored. From the podium Netanyahu certainly noticed the abandoned seats. In the upper balcony, however, he also saw his donors and patrons from the U.S. Jewish community, who had come, as every year, to cheer him from the stands. They included Ron Lauder, Malcolm Hoenlein and, naturally, Sheldon Adelson. Together with Netanyahu’s armada of advisers, they rose and applauded every time they detected a need to boost morale – when Netanyahu mentioned Iran, when he declared that the IDF was the most moral army in the world, and when he attacked the organization under whose logo he was speaking.
If anyone was expecting to hear something new from the prime minister, they were left with feelings of disappointment, sourness, and primarily déjà vu. The United Nations was the same United Nations and the speech was the same speech. Several of the sound bites and arguments Netanyahu used on Monday have appeared in each of his General Assembly addresses over the last five years. At times his speech sounded like a collection of clichés and slogans from members of his cabinet – like the line from Naftali Bennett about the Jewish people not being occupiers in their own land.
Even a familiar gimmick reappeared, but as often happens, the sequel was less successful than the original. Instead of the bomb drawing and the red line of two years ago that became a viral video hit, we got a poster with a less-than-clear photo of Palestinian children playing near a Hamas rocket launcher. The people in the first rows had to strain to understand what they were looking at, and Netanyahu himself needed a second or two to turn the picture right-side up.
Netanyahu, as usual, spoke mainly about threats and dangers. The international battle against Islamic State fell into his hands like a ripe fruit and helped him convey his messages about Hamas and the Iranian nuclear program. But it’s not certain that his speech persuaded anyone. Most of the world does not believe that Hamas – which is part of the Palestinian national movement – and the Islamic State, which is seeking an Islamic caliphate, are “branches of the same poisonous tree” or that a Shi’ite power like Iran and a small Sunni organization like the Islamic State are two sides of the same coin.
Moreover, as in previous years, his speech lacked any strategy or an orderly, detailed, diplomatic program. But Netanyahu regularly deflects criticism of his lack of initiative. He is convinced that his policy of standoff and status quo is the correct one, and he tends to ridicule those who, in his words, call on him to “jump off the cliff” or “dive into deep water.”
The Prime Minister made a few general remarks about partnering with moderate states in the region to promote peace – but then dumped the responsibility for this on the Jordanians, Saudis and Egyptians.
So in the end, Netanyahu made it clear that he wants peace – but only on his terms. Anyone listening to his speech in Riyadh, Cairo, or Amman was probably asking himself: Mr. Netanyahu, after all the grand words, what are you willing to do to make it happen?