JERUSALEM – Israel’s new prime minister called on the international community on Monday to unite against Iran, accusing Tehran of marching toward developing a nuclear weapon and threatening to act only if the world does not take action.
In his inaugural address to the United Nations General Assembly, Naftali Bennett did not mention Israel’s decades-long conflict with the Palestinians and instead sought to portray Iran as a threat to global security.
“Iran’s nuclear program has been a milestone, as has our tolerance,” he said. “Words don’t stop centrifuges from spinning.”
After four inconclusive elections in two years, Bennett succeeded former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June by forming a diverse coalition of small and medium parties that span the Israeli political spectrum.
Where Netanyahu was famous for his showmanship, combativeness, and use of visual props in his UN speeches, Bennett, a former high-tech executive, took a more traditional approach. His voice was measured as he sought to portray his country as a “beacon in a stormy sea” of the volatile Middle East.
But the content of his message was largely similar to Netanyahu’s, as it largely focused on arch nemesis Iran.
“Iran’s grand objective is very clear to anyone who wants to open their eyes: Iran seeks to dominate the region, and it seeks to do so under a nuclear umbrella,” Bennett said.
He called Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, the “butcher of Tehran” for his past role in suppressing political dissent and accused Iran of arming, financing and training Israel’s enemies throughout the region. He said Iranian meddling had brought disasters to countries like Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
“Every place Iran touches fails,” he said, claiming that Iranian activities threaten the entire world. He pointed to Iran’s development of attack drones, which have been blamed for a series of attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Israel believes Iran is aiming to develop nuclear weapons, an accusation Iran denies, and says the international nuclear deal reached with Iran in 2015 did not include enough safeguards to prevent Iran from reaching a weapons capability.
Israel welcomed then-President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement in 2018 and has made clear that it opposes the Biden administration’s willingness to return to the agreement. Israel says the deal needs major modifications before it can be reinstated.
Bennett said that some in the international community have concluded that a nuclear-capable Iran is an “unavoidable reality.”
“Israel does not have that privilege,” he said, noting that Israel is ready to act only if necessary. “We will not get tired. We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
The United Nations has made the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a high priority for decades, prompting accusations from Israel that the world body is unfairly biased.
Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is frequently criticized in UN bodies, including the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. In 2012, despite Israeli objections, Palestinians were granted non-member observer status at the UN, allowing them to join various international bodies. These include the International Criminal Court, which is now investigating possible Israeli war crimes.
In an unusually harsh speech to the UN General Assembly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday gave Israel a year to end its occupation of territories that the Palestinians want for a future state. He threatened to withdraw recognition of Israel, a cornerstone of three decades of failed peace efforts, if he did not.
Bennett, a hard-line religious who opposes the Palestinian state, failed to criticize the United Nations and did not mention Abbas or the Palestinians once in his 25-minute speech. As prime minister, he has rejected calls for peace talks with the Palestinians, although he hopes to promote better economic relations to reduce friction.
In a subtle message to his detractors, he said Israel was prepared to work with the international community and share its technological expertise to tackle other problems, including the coronavirus pandemic.
“For too long, Israel was defined by wars with our neighbors,” he said. “But this is not what Israel is about. This is not what the people of Israel are about.”