Report

Netanyahu Skewers Obama’s Nuclear Deal, but Praises U.S. President’s Israel Support

The Israeli prime minister lost the battle against the Iran nuclear deal. But he can't seem to let it go, delivering a scathing attack on it before the U.N. General Assembly.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29:  Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2014 in New York City. The annual event brings political leaders from around the globe together to report on issues meet and look for solutions.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29: Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2014 in New York City. The annual event brings political leaders from around the globe together to report on issues meet and look for solutions. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political allies in Washington lost a bruising diplomatic battle to scuttle the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran.

Netanyahu, though, is not quite ready to move on.

In his first address to the U.N. General Assembly since the deal was clinched, Netanyahu lit into the U.S.-brokered nuclear pact and excoriated the vast majority of U.N. members that have celebrated it as a landmark in diplomacy and a pathway toward a more peaceful Iran. “I wish I could take comfort in the claim that this deal blocks Iran’s path to nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said in his speech at the annual meeting of the General Assembly. “But I can’t, because it doesn’t.”

Netanyahu urged the United States and other U.N. powers to hold Iran’s “feet to the fire” and ensure that Iran scrupulously implements the deal. But he reiterated his fears that Iran will be able to use the potentially tens of billions of dollars it receives in sanctions relief to bolster its support for Israel’s enemies, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Israeli leader said he was in discussion with a number of unnamed Arab countries that were quietly working closely with Israel to check Iran’s regional influence. The Israeli leader also issued a muscular, if implicit, warning that Israel would use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. “Israel will not allow Iran to break in, to sneak in, or to walk into the nuclear weapons club.”

Netanyahu also scolded the U.N. General Assembly delegates for embracing a “bad deal” and remaining silent as Iran’s leaders issued threats to destroy Israel. Claiming that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for the destruction of Israel in a book released after the nuclear deal was clinched, he said the “response from this body, from nearly every one of the governments represented here, has been absolutely nothing. Utter silence.”

In a bit of political theater, he then paused for 40 seconds, taking his time to glare at the foreign delegates.

Even as he torched the nuclear deal, Netanyahu sought to underscore his gratitude to the United States and President Barack Obama, stressing what he described as Washington’s strong support for Israel’s security. “The alliance between Israel and the United States will always be unshakeable,” he said.

Supporters of the Israeli prime minister watched the speech from the wings of the U.N. General Assembly hall, bursting into applause when Netanyahu condemned the deal and vowed to ensure Iran didn’t obtain a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu’s reception from delegations at the United Nations was much cooler. They listened politely, though quietly, through the lengthy 40-minute statement.

The United States sent a relatively low-level delegation, including David Pressman, the U.S. ambassador for political affairs at the United Nations; Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel; and Richard Erdman, another U.S. diplomat assigned to the United Nations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, skipped the speech “because they were called into a meeting with President Obama, which they participated in via video teleconference,” according to Power’s spokeswoman, Hagar Chemali.

Netanyahu’s appearance came one day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas unfurled the Palestinian flag at U.N. headquarters for the first time. In his own speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Abbas said that the Palestinian government is no longer bound by the terms of the Oslo peace process, which has been the basis for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians for more than 20 years.

“We cannot continue to be bound by these agreements,” Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly. “They leave us no choice but to insist that we will not remain the only ones committed by these agreements, while Israel continues to violate them.”

Netanyahu has faced sharp criticism from foreign governments, including the United States, for indicating during his re-election campaign last March that he would not establish a Palestinian state. Netanyahu subsequently backed off of those remarks. But the White House has held him to it.

The Israeli prime minister on Thursday cited Abbas’s remarks this week to make the case that the Palestinian leader, not Netanyahu, was to blame for undercutting the prospects for the resumption of peace talks.

Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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