Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out his worldview of a single threat of militant Islam, from Shia Islamist Iran to Salafi ISIS to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas. Netanyahu comes to Washington to meet with President Obama on October 1 with an agenda focused on this unified threat.
Netanyahu and Abbas Spar at the UN
At the best of times, Israeli and Arab leaders know how to speak to each other’s audiences, assuaging some of the fears and suspicions on the other side, as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did when coming to Jerusalem in 1977 to call for peace.
These are not the best of times.
In a speech that was vintage Netanyahu, the prime minister’s first mission, he said, was “to expose the brazen lies spoken from this podium.” Netanyahu was alluding to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s bellicose speech at the same venue last Friday, in which the Palestinian President catered to his own, outraged, domestic audience. Abbas began his speech with the accusation that “Israel has chosen to make [this year] a year of a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people.” In Abbas’s accounting, Israel alone chose the war this summer, as if Hamas was a passive recipient of Israeli malice (I wrote on this issue at the start of the war, here). He made no mention of how the West Bank, which he rules, avoided Gaza’s fate, or of his own previous question to Hamas: “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?”
More appalling, Abbas repeated his previous claim of “genocide,” which both belittles actual genocide and defies any reasonable assessment of the — terrible — human suffering in Gaza or its context.
True to form, Netanyahu tied Abbas’s accusations to the reemergence of anti-Semitism in Europe and, never shy to invoke the Holocaust, to Abbas’s demand that no Jews remain in a new Palestinian state, which Netanyahu labeled a policy of “Judenrein,” the Nazi term for an area “free of Jews.”
Voicing grievances most Israelis share about a judgmental world opinion, Netanyahu called the UN Human Rights Council an “oxymoron” for its manifest fixation with Israel but indifference toward its adversaries—including blatant human rights violator Hamas — or, in comparison to Israel, toward any other country in the world. It is a “Terrorists’ Rights Council,” he concluded.
Throughout, Netanyahu spoke not to Palestinians but to world opinion, which to Netanyahu means, first and foremost, Americans. He mentioned retiring New York Yankee Derek Jeter, a mostly anonymous figure outside the United States (Israelis and Palestinians could not care less about baseball.) He pointed out that the distance between the June 1967 border and the outskirts of Tel Aviv (the outermost outskirts, in truth) is about the distance between the UN building and another New York landmark, Times Square.
The Single Threat of Militant Islam
More broadly, Netanyahu laid out a stark vision of a single, common threat engulfing the Middle East and threatening the world — militant Islam. “The Nazis believed in a master race. The militant Islamists believe in a master faith.”
Though it comes in many shades, for Netanyahu the threat is fundamentally one. In his own words: “[W]hen it comes to their ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas”. (It is worth remembering that Netanyahu is negotiating, indirectly, with Hamas, something he would presumably not advise with regard to ISIS.) And alluding to Iran, he queried, “Would you let ISIS enrich uranium?”
It’s this long-held worldview that underlies his agenda with the president as well.
Netanyahu Meets Obama
As was the case in the Obama-Netanyahu meetings of 2012, 2013 and in March of this year, Netanyahu will focus above all else on Iran’s nuclear program. With a November deadline for discussions between the P5+1 and Iran fast approaching, Netanyahu will hope to hear that the United States will stand firm in its demands on Iran’s enrichment capabilities. At the UN, Netanyahu warned again about Iran’s “charm offensive,” quoting otherwise amiable Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s writing: “We have a fundamental problem with the West, and especially with America. This is because we are heirs to a global mission, which is tied to our raison d’etre….”
In particular, Netanyahu will seek assurance that the U.S. effort against ISIS, one in which Iran has a common interest, will not weaken U.S. resolve on the Iranian nuclear issue, a hope shared across the Israeli political sphere. (Israeli Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog spoke on the matter at Brookings a few weeks ago, and heard similar assurances on the matter at the White House.)
In the Palestinian arena, with the militant-Islamist threat in mind and the fresh memory of the Gaza conflict, Netanyahu now again emphasizes security above all. The peace process is moribund; both leaders have turned away from negotiations with Abbas now outlining a vision for internationalizing the conflict. Netanyahu will hope that President Obama directs the U.S. mission to veto any Palestinian move in the UN Security Council, as it has done in the past.
For Netanyahu, the Palestinian UN track appears as an outright threat, but any other track must be subsumed to the growing need for security guarantees. Making no mention of a Palestinian state at the UN, Netanyahu made clear that he wants peace, “but it must be a genuine peace, one that is anchored in mutual recognition and enduring security arrangements, rock solid security arrangements on the ground.” He went on to stress that: “Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza created two militant Islamic enclaves on our borders from which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel.”
The rather limited silver lining in Netanyahu’s account, and one he may well stress with the president, was of a “new Middle East” (a far grimmer version of the phrase coined by Shimon Peres in the 1990s). “It presents new dangers, but also new opportunities.” Netanyahu now sees an alliance of interests between Israel and several Sunni states — Saudi Arabia and Egypt chief among them — that virulently oppose both the Muslim Brotherhood (and to a degree Hamas) and Iran.
This new alliance is certainly meaningful — it shaped much of the recent Gaza conflict — but it is also inherently limited. The new Arab partners Netanyahu identifies remain beholden to Arab public opinion, for which the Palestinian issue remains a powerful emotive force. After all, the Arab Peace Initiative — the formal proposal of the Arab League which adopted the Saudi proposal — offered Israel normalization with the entire Arab world, once peace is signed with the Palestinians.
Given where the Palestinian and Israeli leaders and publics are today — evident in the leaders’ speeches at the UN — that peace is not on the horizon.