It has been three and half months, and Naftali Bennett is still Prime Minister of Israel. Many people predicted this government to die in childbirth. I'm not going to say that it is thriving, but it is making progress. This week Bennett passed another milestone—the yearly speeches that heads of states give at the United Nations.
Bennett focused his remarks primarily on the Islamic Republic of Iran's threat to Israel, the Middle East, and the world.
"Iran seeks to dominate the region and seeks to do so under a nuclear umbrella. For the past three decades, Iran has spread its carnage and destruction around the Middle East country after country, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza," Bennett said. Tehran funds proxy armies in several countries around Israel—Hezbollah, Shia militias, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. "Every place Iran touches—fails," Bennett said.
Bennett pointed out that Iran is rapidly approaching nuclear status right under the nose of UN observers and "getting away with it."
"Iran's nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning. We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon," Bennett said. "If we put our heads to it, if we're serious about stopping it, if we use all our resourcefulness, we can prevail," signaling that Israel welcomes the help of the international community in combatting this existential threat.
The Prime Minister also touted his diverse coalition government's ability to "debate without hate" and praised Israel's successes and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. "We pioneered the booster shot. Lockdowns, restrictions quarantines cannot work in the long run."
Bennett closed his remarks by likening Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, to a "lighthouse in a stormy sea." Israel is "a beacon of democracy, diverse by design, innovative by nature, and eager to contribute to the world—despite being in the toughest neighborhood on Earth. Alongside our old friends, we are gaining new friends in the Middle East and beyond." This was a nod to the Abraham Accords and the 38 nations that boycotted the antisemitic Durban Conference. "A bit of light dispels much darkness."
However, one word was noticeably absent from Bennett's speech—Palestinian. While Bennett did mention Hamas, he steered clear of the decades-old debate over the Palestinian issue. "For way too long. Israel was defined by wars with our neighbors, but this is not what Israel is about. Israelis don't wake up in the morning thinking about conflict."
Not surprisingly, the premier's omission miffed the Meretz party (some of the left-wing members of his unity government) and the Arab-majority Joint List back home. Bennett also took flak from his government's opposition leaders—former Prime Minister Ben Benjamin Netanyahu and his party Likud mocked the prime minister, saying, "Bennett gave an empty speech in front of an empty hall and wasted empty words. Instead of making use of an important international stage."
(If Bennett's words were empty, the former prime minister's criticism was white noise. Over the past three and half months, Bibi has acted very childish in the way he has led the once great Likud party in doing nothing significant other than being critical of the government. Most Israelis have tuned him out.)
While US President Joe Biden addressed a packed house at the UN, other world leaders, including India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had trouble drawing a crowd. COVID restrictions have impacted the attendance at the General Assembly this year as well.
While in New York, Prime Minister Bennett also addressed leaders from the American Jewish community, hoping to strengthen his ties with the diaspora. America is home to the largest number of Jews outside of Israel. Bennett speaks fluent English and lived in the US for many years at different times in his life. He was actually in New York City on 9/11.
He shared with the roomful of rabbis and other influential Jewish leaders how his mom couldn't find American breakfast cereal when she moved to Israel and how he wished she was there with him.
"Since the inception of Israel, and actually, it predates the inception of Israel, Israel has been the project of the Jewish people. But we're doing OK (referring to Israel's economy and tech sector). Now we have to redesign our relationship," Bennett said. "You have our back, and it just means a lot." For decades, American Jews have financially supported Israel's development investing millions of dollars into the economy of the "startup nation." Bennett told the group Israel is thriving, and it's time to move beyond being only a refuge for the world's persecuted Jews. The prime minister also affirmed that he, like his predecessor Netanyahu, has his eye on Iran and "will not outsource our security to anyone, even to our best friends."
Bennett's speech and charming demeanor must've resonated deeply with his audience. At the end, he said, "I love you," and in response, the room gave the young prime minister a standing ovation.