Updated at 3:48 p.m., Oct. 1
Benjamin Netanyahu began his career in politics talking toward the glossy black eye of the television camera. With no particular background in the give-and-take of retail politics back home in Israel, the voluble young diplomat made his mark articulating the country’s position in countless live shots, first from Washington D.C., where he was number two in the Israeli embassy in the 1980s, and then from New York, where he served as Jerusalem’s ambassador to the United Nations. It’s a body that Israelis, for assorted reasons, typically regard askance—“Um-Shmum” is how Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion once dismissed its judgment, using the Hebrew abbreviation. Still, with that stone-façade rostrum and the fixed cameras, the General Assembly hall is also a television studio (especially the temporary version where this year’s annual convocation was held). And Netanyahu — now in his third term as Prime Minister of Israel — looked entirely at home there Tuesday afternoon, calling out his Iranian counterpart again and again and again.
Netanyahu was nearly note-perfect in his address, which by design was the last of scores during the annual assembly of heads of state. In a 2013 session marked by the celebrated, almost giddy beginning of a diplomatic rapprochement between Israel’s most determined enemy, Iran, and its most vital ally, the United States, Netanyahu wanted the last word.
He made the most of it. Almost all of his 40-minute address was devoted to deflating the buoyant expectations surrounding Iran’s newly elected President, who has benefited immensely by the contrast he presents with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. President Hassan Rouhani had ridden a charm offensive into New York, and was carried back to Iran on the wings of a phone call from President Obama, whose 15 minutes of diplomatic chat broke 34 years of icy silence between the countries. Netanyahu was intent on reminding everyone that the chill was not entirely born of habit or inertia.
He began by noting that in Iran’s theocratic system, elected presidents come and go; ultimate power resides with “the dictator known as the Supreme Leader,” who Rouhani in fact had served for years as head of the national security council during a time of attacks that, by many accounts, were traced to Iran, from the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish club, to the attacks that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. soliders at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. “Are we to believe that Rouhani, national security adviser at the time, knew nothing about these attacks?” Netanyahu asked.
This year there was nothing so broad as the cartoon bomb Netanyahu hauled out in the same setting in 2012. On Tuesday, he talked tough but also softly and quickly, making haste to make the most of Iran’s rich record of doubletalk on a nuclear effort Netanyahu described as “vast and feverish.” He noted Rouhani’s record, while serving as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator to the West, of boasting that he had succeeded in using diplomacy to stall while Iran mastered technical challenges.
“By creating a calm environment,” Rouhani wrote in a memoir of his time negotiating in the mid 2000’s, “we were able to complete the work in Isfahan,” where Iran was racing to install a facility that converts yellowcake uranium into the gas fed into centrifuges for enriching into fuel — or potentially a weapon. After quoting the memoir, Netanyahu delivered a zinger that could have been too much: “He thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too.” But he tossed it over his shoulder, and moved on to his next example, citing the apparent diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea that, after being hailed by a New York Times editorial as evidence that “diplomacy can work,” was followed a year later by the detonation of Pyonyang’s first nuclear weapon.
Tehran’s charm offensive may have stolen control of the nuclear narrative from Israel, but it may also be that Israelis are most comfortable in the role of underdog. Netanyahu’s vow, near the close of his speech, that “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,” seemed to carry coiled within it more of a genuine threat of military action than the scores of allusions to “imminent” military strikes that first galvanized global attention on Tehran’s program two years ago.
(Iran’s UN delegation responded with a reply after Netanyahu’s speech, saying the Israeli “tried to mislead this august body about the Iranian nuclear program, but, unlike last year, without cartoon drawing.” The riposte eschewed the Islamic Republic’s longstanding policy of referring to Israel only as “the Zionist entity.” It also nodded to the likely existence of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal, noting that “the one who is badly in need to be educated about these issues is Israel which is the only non-party to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] in the Middle East.”)
Yet the core of Netanyahu’s pitch was a call to keep up the economic sanctions that, in crippling Iran’s economy, did so much to elect Rouhani, with his promise of ending Iran’s international isolation. “The international community has Iran on the ropes,” Netanyahu said. “If you want to knock out Iran’s nuclear weapons potential peacefully, keep it up.”