JERUSALEM – Israel’s new prime minister appealed to the international community Monday to stand together against Iran, accusing Tehran of marching toward the development of a nuclear weapon and threatening to act alone if the world does not take action.
In his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Naftali Bennett made no mention of Israel's decadeslong conflict with the Palestinians and instead sought to portray Iran as a menace to global security.
“Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance,” he said. “Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.”
After four inconclusive elections in two years, Bennett succeeded the longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June by forming a diverse coalition of small and midsize parties spanning the Israeli political spectrum.
Where Netanyahu was famous for his showmanship, combativeness and use of memorable visual props in his addresses to the U.N., Bennett — a former high-tech executive — took a more traditional approach. His voice was measured as he sought to portray his country as a “lighthouse in a stormy sea” of the volatile Mideast.
But the content of his message was largely similar to that of Netanyahu as he focused heavily on archenemy Iran.
“Iran’s great goal is crystal clear to anybody who cares to open their eyes: Iran seeks to dominate the region — and 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, funding and training Israel’s enemies across the region. He said Iranian meddling had brought disaster to countries like Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
“Every place Iran touches fails,” he said, claiming that Iranian activities threatened the entire world. He pointed to Iran’s development of attack drones, which have been blamed for a string of attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf.
In a reply later Monday on the assembly floor, Iranian diplomat Payman Ghadirkhomi accused Bennett of making baseless allegations and using “threatening language” toward Iran.
“His regime must avoid any miscalculation and adventuristic move in the region,” added Ghadirkhomi, who is assigned to Iran's U.N. mission.
Israel believes that Iran aims to develop nuclear weapons — a charge Iran denies — and says the international nuclear accord reached with Iran in 2015 did not include enough safeguards to keep Iran from reaching a weapons capability.
Israel welcomed then-President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord in 2018 and has made clear that it opposes the Biden administration’s willingness to return to the agreement. Israel says the agreement 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 “inevitable reality.”
“Israel doesn’t have that privilege,” he said, signaling that Israel is ready to act alone if necessary. “We will not tire. 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 over the decades, drawing accusations from Israel that the world body is unfairly biased.
Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is frequently criticized in U.N. bodies, including the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. In 2012, over Israeli objections, the Palestinians were granted nonmember observer status at the U.N., allowing them to join a number of international bodies. These include the International Criminal Court, which is now investigating possible Israeli war crimes.
In an unusually harsh speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday gave Israel one year to end its occupation of territories the Palestinians want for a future state. He threatened to withdraw recognition of Israel — a cornerstone of three decades of failed peace efforts — if it failed to do so.
Bennett, a religious hard-liner who opposes Palestinian statehood, stopped short of criticizing the United Nations and did not mention Abbas or the Palestinians even once in his 25-minute address. As prime minister, he has rejected calls for peace talks with the Palestinians, though 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 address other issues, including the coronavirus pandemic.
“For way 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.”
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz at the United Nations contributed to this report.