Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. (Reuters/Nir Elias)
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, having somehow secured the last speech on the week-long agenda, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did his best to serve as a human wrecking-ball against the unfolding US-Iran rapprochement that is underway. But his extreme rhetoric, unfounded statements and hyperbole simply undermined his case.
From the opening lines of the speech, Netanyahu dove into the deep end. Israel, he said, is “challenged by a nuclear-armed Iran that seeks our destruction”—even though no one, perhaps except Netanyahu himself, would argue that Iran is “nuclear-armed.” Not an ounce of Iran’s enriched uranium is close to the level at which it could be used in a bomb, and Iran has not demonstrated that it has the ability to create a nuclear weapon even if it had enough highly enriched uranium. So, needless to say, Iran has no nuclear weapons and it is not nuclear-armed.
Netanyahu also accused Iran of leading “wild chants of ‘Death to the Jews!’” Again, this is nonsense. If anything like that happened in Iran in the decades since 1979, it’s the equivalent of tattooed rednecks in Texas shouting, “Nuke the ayatollahs!” Netanyahu’s silly charge is particularly ironic, coming after President Hassan Rouhani and his government have reached out to Jews worldwide, sending greetings and best wishes for the recent Jewish holidays, acknowledged that the Holocaust was a terrible crime and taken other steps to signal that Jews are not the enemy. Rouhani even traveled to New York last week accompanied by the Jewish member of Iran’s parliament—a parliament which, incidentally, filled with hardliners and conservatives, yesterday endorsed Rouhani’s outreach to the United States and his commitment to nuclear diplomacy.
Netanyahu, wildly mixing metaphors filled his speech with phrases such as calling Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” who can’t “have his yellowcake and eat it, too.” And he said: “A nuclear-armed Iran in the Middle East wouldn’t be another North Korea. It would be another fifty North Koreas!” I’m not even sure what that means.
Gary Sick, a former senior aide to President Jimmy Carter and an expert on Iran, told The New York Times that Netanyahu didn’t exactly help himself:
“He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility. It really is jarring to see that, the extreme element, and how far he was willing to push it. He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”
It isn’t clear whether Netanyahu’s unchained rhetoric will have any effect at all, either at home, in regard to the US Congress, or with the White House. The Senate, in particular, has backed away from imposing new sanctions on Iran as long as the US-Iran talks proceed, which means Netanyahu didn’t have much success on that front. And, indeed, it might be argued that it is in Israel’s own interest for the talks to go forward. As Trita Parsi points out in Foreign Affairs, if the United States can succeed in bringing Iran back into the world community, ending sanctions and allowing Iran to play a constructive role in the region, it can only benefit Israel:
This is precisely why diplomacy serves Israel better than Netanyahu’s naysaying: Iran’s position on Israel is far more likely to change in the direction Israel desires if U.S.-Iranian relations improve and the first tangible steps are taken to rehabilitate Iran into the region’s political and economic structures.
So Netanyahu may be isolating Israel and making both it and the US Israel lobby irrelevant to the debate. As the Associated Press reports:
Despite some tough rhetoric in a speech to the U.N. by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it will be all but impossible for Israel to take military action once negotiations between Iran and world powers resume. As a result, Israel could find itself sidelined in the international debate over how to handle the suspect Iranian nuclear program over the coming months.
Chris Hayes discusses the costs of the government shutdown on his MSNBC show.