UNITED NATIONS — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that he is prepared to hold direct talks with the Palestinians with no preconditions, and warned that Iran remains a threat to nations far outside the Middle East.
The Israeli leader spent the bulk of his 40-minute speech to the U.N. General Assembly on the nuclear deal finalized in July. At one point, he theatrically paused for 44 seconds and glared at the half-filled hall after he excoriated the United Nations for its “deafening silence” over Iran’s threats to annihilate Israel.
“Israel will not allow Iran to break in, sneak in or walk into the nuclear weapons club,” he declared, suggesting that a military option is still available to Israel.
The U.S. representatives in the Assembly Hall sat stony-faced in the front row as Netanyahu denounced the nuclear deal the United States and five other world powers negotiated with Iran, easing sanctions in return for limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
He urged the member states, most of whom have expressed congratulations for the landmark deal, to check their enthusiasm for the agreement at the door.
Netanyahu said the deal heightens the potential for war, not lessens it. And he said Europe and the United States are in Iran’s crosshairs.
“Iran is also building intercontinental ballistic missiles, whose sole purpose is to carry nuclear warheads,” he said, adding that they aren’t meant to be aimed at Israel. “They’re meant for you. For Europe, for America. For raining down mass destruction, anytime, anywhere.”
Netanyahu said that Iran is financing dozens of terror cells around the world and that it will not morph from a “rapacious tiger into a kitten.” After sanctions are lifted, he said, an unleashed and unmuzzled Iran “will go on the prowl, devouring more and more prey.”
He also challenged the Iranian leadership. After reciting quotations from Iranian leaders threatening the eventual demise of the Jewish state, he said, “Your plan to destroy Israel will fail. Israel will not permit any force on Earth to threaten its future.”
Netanyahu also devoted part of his speech to a rebuttal of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who on Wednesday stood at the same podium and accused Israel of scuttling peace prospects through settlement growth and other policies. Netanyahu said Abbas was “rejectionist,” and he repeated calls to resume peace talks that have foundered since they collapsed in 2014.
“I am prepared to immediately resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any preconditions whatsoever,” he said.
Palestinians say they will not resume talks until Netanyahu’s government curtails the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and agrees that the talks about the borders of a future Palestinian state be based on the 1967 armistice lines.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said what Israel calls “preconditions” are parameters for negotiations. After the collapse of last year’s U.S.-led talks, Palestinian leaders have been vocal in their belief that Netanyahu will never agree to a Palestinian state and that offers of “talks without preconditions” are a ruse.
After listening to the prime minister’s speech Thursday, Erekat said, “As Mr. Netanyahu tells the world he wants to negotiate for two states, he has built the largest illegal settlement enterprise seen in modern history, on the land of the State of Palestine, while his settlers continue to terrorize Palestinian civilians.”
Some of the skepticism is shared by the White House. On the eve of his historic reelection, Netanyahu famously promised voters there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. He later amended his remarks to say that the time is not right. President Obama suggested in an interview that he took Netanyahu at his word.
Although relations between Netanyahu and Obama have been notoriously chilly, Netanyahu gave a tip of the hat to decades of support from the United States.
“We will never forget that the most important partner Israel has, has always been and will always be the United States of America,” he said. “The alliance between Israel and the United States is unshakable.”
This was Netanyahu’s first speech to a worldwide audience since the six world powers inked the Iran deal and handed Netanyahu one of the worst losses of his career. The Israeli leader has waged diplomatic war against Iran’s nuclear ambitions through four terms in office, warning that Iran was racing toward a bomb that would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.
His critics in Israel also charge that Netanyahu’s tactics — by directly confronting Obama in an address to Congress and by taking sides in a bitter partisan fight in Washington over the pact — have severely harmed U.S.-Israel relations. Netanyahu has brushed off the criticism.
“I think that it is not only my right but my duty to warn against such dangers,” Netanyahu said in publicly two weeks ago. “Doing so not only doesn’t harm Israel, but it serves Israel,” because the United States will now oppose Iranian aggression and strengthen Israel with advanced weaponry.
As for charges that he hurt relations with America, Netanyahu counseled more humility from the critics and said, “I think I know how to navigate Israel’s diplomatic relations . . . and how to maintain our ties with the best of our friends, the United States.”
Netanyahu evoked the Holocaust as he chastised the United Nations for what he characterized as an obsession with bashing Israel. He said it had stood by idly in the face of Iran’s repeated threats to wipe out the Jewish state.
“And the response from this body, from nearly every one of the governments here, has been absolutely nothing,” he said. “Utter silence. Deafening silence.”
Netanyahu drew a comparison between U.N. resolutions condemning Israeli’s treatment of the Palestinians with its reaction to the violence of the Syrian conflict that has taken 250,000 lives in four years.
“Yet last year this assembly adopted 20 resolutions against Israel and just one resolution about the savage slaughter in Syria,” Netanyahu said. “Talk about injustice. Talk about disproportionality. Twenty. Count them. One against Syria.”
Paraphrasing a line from Yogi Berra, Netanyahu added, “When it comes to the annual bashing of Israel at the United Nations, it’s deja vu all over again. Enough. . . . When will the United Nations finally check its anti-Israel fanaticism at the door?”