Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly this year was memorable for being especially unmemorable.
Netanyahu gained fame as an orator four decades ago when he served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. He has since made a career of dramatic UNGA speeches that caught the attention of the world.
In 2012, Netanyahu displayed a cartoonish diagram of a bomb and then drew a red line on it to persuade the world to set the clear red lines needed to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
Three years earlier, he drew attention to his speech by displaying original 1942 Nazi-era documents on the extermination of Jews, including the minutes of the Wannsee Conference that decided on the Final Solution and the blueprints of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.
This year, he drew a red line showing the path to peace from Saudi Arabia to Israel, calling it “the new Middle East.”
But Netanyahu’s speech made international news only because of what his office called an unfortunate error by the prime minister.
“Above all, Iran must face a credible nuclear threat,” he said dramatically. “As long as I’m prime minister of Israel, I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu’s office put out a statement shortly after the speech saying he had misread the paper in front of him and actually intended to just say “a credible military threat.”
But maybe it was no slip of the tongue. Maybe Netanyahu was telling the truth.
It may not have been a threat to use actual nuclear weapons, but Netanyahu realizes that the military threat to Iran must be upped significantly to be effective, and his “mistake” accomplished that. He may have been bluffing again, but he knows that Iran’s nuclearization is proceeding faster than others realize, making military action against Iran more urgent.
The wider context of Netanyahu’s speech is that it came at the conclusion of a week whose focus was on efforts to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. That deal would purportedly enable the Saudis to obtain a civilian nuclear capability on condition that the U.S. would fully oversee and control it. This idea has been actively marketed and pushed by Netanyahu’s two closest advisers—Ron Dermer and Tzachi Hanegbi.
It also came after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) warned about Iran getting a nuclear bomb in a Fox News interview.
“If they get one, we have to get one,” he said, noting the need for “balancing power in the Middle East.”
U.S. President Joe Biden clearly wants an Israel-Saudi deal for his legacy. He may even win a Nobel Prize for brokering it.
But there is no doubt that, for his own legacy, Netanyahu needs to prevent Iran from getting a bomb, not give the Saudis one to compensate for the failure of his life’s mission.
Netanyahu knows that Arab and Muslim leaders in the Middle East come and go. Just like Iran was once an Israeli ally, the Saudis can easily shift back to their age-old anti-Israel stance in a heartbeat.
As has happened in the Middle East before, all that is needed is one bullet from one of his countless enemies, and MBS is no more. Even if he lives and rules for a generation, what happens in the next generation or the one after? A maniacal anti-Israel tyrant could take power in Saudi Arabia and kick the Americans out.
How long would the Jewish state last after that?
MBS is not the only Arab or Muslim leader who says that if a neighbor gets nuclear weapons, he would also have to join the club. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hinted at it last week. Does anyone doubt that after the Qataris bought a World Cup, they would not buy a bomb? The UAE can easily afford one too.
The solution is not a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race but taking Iran out and ending the nuclearization of the Middle East once and for all.
The Biden administration has proven that it cannot be trusted when it comes to implementing international agreements. Under Biden, the U.S. has neglected its Abraham Accords commitment to provide the UAE with the advanced Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft, citing bureaucracy and other excuses. Commitments to Bahrain also remain unfulfilled.
After the U.S. failed to keep its promises to the UAE and Bahrain, why would the Saudis or other potential Abraham Accords partners trust the Biden administration? They will only take risks to join if the U.S. is seen as reliable, consistent and having their backs.
As Netanyahu pointed out in his U.N. speech, the Abraham Accords were facilitated by mutual fear of the nuclearization of Iran by Israel and its partners.
“The common threat of Iran has brought Israel and many Arab states closer than ever before in a friendship that I have not seen in my lifetime,” he said in both this year’s speech and five years ago.
Therefore, the best way to advance peace in the Middle East is for the U.S.—and if not the U.S., then Israel—to take action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon that would cast a shadow over the region forever. If America took such a step, the Saudis and other potential allies will know the U.S. can be trusted as the leader of the free world.
If the U.S. acts, then as MBS said, Saudi Arabia would not need a nuclear weapon. Other Arab and Muslim states would not need one either, and the world would be a much safer place.
The time has come to bring about true normalization in the “new Middle East.” The time has come to make sure neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia, nor any other country in the region—aside from Israel—gets the bomb.