In the end, there was much to talk about at the U.N. General Assembly but few genuine surprises.
With an eye on the jihadist group ISIS, President Obama focused on the need for the international community to counter the dangers of violent extremism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likened Hamas to ISIS and depicted Iran as the vanguard of Islamic militancy. As in past years, he invoked the Nazis, but this time as comparable to militant Islamists.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the West’s blunders for fomenting the terrorists of ISIS and characterized Iran as leading the forces of moderation in the region. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a scathing attack against Israel and its conduct in this summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza, in stark contrast to his tone last year.
They all had said it before, but their General Assembly speeches were notable for their global audience, what they chose to focus on, what they omitted and, in some cases, how they said it.
Netanyahu played show and tell when he brandished a photo during his speech on Monday that displayed a rocket launcher in a civilian area of Gaza with children nearby. In his 2012 U.N. speech, Netanyahu struck the same pose when he brandished a cartoon image of a bomb to illustrate that Iran was closing in on nuclear weapons capability.
Yet while he repeated one of his favorite lines from this summer — “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas” — Netanyahu’s main aim was casting Iran at the forefront of militant Islam with as clever a hyperbole as he and his speechmakers could muster: “To say Iran doesn’t practice terrorism is like saying Derek Jeter never played shortstop for the New York Yankees.
“It’s one thing to confront militant Islamists on pickup trucks armed with Kalashnikov rifles,” the Israeli leader said. “It’s another thing to confront militant Islamists armed with weapons of mass destruction.”
Netanyahu also sought to link his arguments to Obama’s message about the dangers of violent Islamic extremists.
In his General Assembly address on Sept. 24, Obama said, “As we look to the future, one issue risks a cycle of conflict that could derail so much progress, and that is the cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world.”
Five days later, Netanyahu offered this echo: “To protect the peace and security of the world, we must remove this cancer before it is too late.”
For Israel supporters, Obama’s speech was especially notable for what it did not say. As expected, Obama talked about ISIS, and he took swipes at Russia (“We will impose a cost on Russia for aggression, and we will counter falsehoods with the truth”), but he barely mentioned Iran, devoting just four lines to the subject of Iran’s nuclear program.
Last year, by contrast, Iran was one of two major focal points of Obama’s General Assembly address. The other was Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which had begun several weeks earlier.
This year, after a bruising 50-day war over the summer that left some 2,100 Palestinians and more than 70 Israelis dead, Obama had considerably less to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though he gave no indication that a new U.S. peace push is in the works — the U.S.-led effort headed by Secretary of State John Kerry collapsed in April — Obama said, “As bleak as the landscape appears, America will not give up on the pursuit of peace.”
He noted, “The status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable. We cannot afford to turn away from this effort, not when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis or when the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza.”
Of the four leaders’ speeches, Abbas’ represented the starkest departure from his remarks last year. In 2013, Abbas said, “I am confident that the Israeli people want peace.”
This year, Abbas accused Israel of a “culture of racism, incitement and hatred” and said the “racist occupying state” had waged a “war of genocide” against the Palestinians. Abbas had accused Israel of genocide in Gaza during this summer's war, too, and at the General Assembly he spared no words lambasting Israel.
“Its jets and tanks brutally assassinated lives and devastated the homes, schools and dreams of thousands of Palestinian children, women and men, and in reality destroying the remaining hopes for peace,” Abbas said in his address last Friday.
“I affirm in front of you that the Palestinian people hold steadfast to their legitimate right to defend themselves against the Israeli war machine and to their legitimate right to resist this colonial, racist Israeli occupation,” Abbas said. “We will not forget and we will not forgive, and we will not allow war criminals to escape punishment.”
However, Abbas made no mention of pursuing Palestinian membership in the International Criminal Court, which could lead to charges against Israelis for war crimes. Abbas has faced some domestic pressure to make such a move, and he has obtained the backing for it from various Palestinian factions. But a move to the criminal court also would open up the Palestinians to potential war crimes charges; for example, for firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian population centers.
As for Iran, many of the lines in Rouhani’s Sept. 25 speech echoed remarks that Obama had delivered a day earlier.
“If we do not muster all our strengths against extremism and violence today, and fail to entrust the job to the people in the region who can deliver, tomorrow the world will be safe for no one,” Rouhani said. “To fight the underlying causes of terrorism, one must know its roots and dry its source fountains.”
Obama had said: “Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated fanatics and the trends that fuel their recruitment. Moreover, this campaign against extremism goes beyond a narrow security challenge.”
Though Rouhani sought to portray Iran as on the side of the moderates in the campaign against violent Islamic extremists, he accused Western policies of creating ISIS.
“The strategic blunders of the West in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus have turned these parts of the world into a haven for terrorists and extremists,” Rouhani said. “Military aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq and improper interference in the developments in Syria are clear examples of this erroneous strategic approach in the Middle East.”
For his part, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem used his U.N. address to call for an expansion of the fight against ISIS to all groups fighting the Syrian regime.
“Syria reiterates that it stands with any international effort aimed at fighting and combating terrorism,” Moualem said.
With the deadline for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program less than two months away, the looming question is whether all the talk at the United Nations will be followed by action.
Tehran has shown little willingness to stop enriching uranium or building centrifuges, but Obama is focused on ISIS rather than Iran and there doesn’t seem to be much international support for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
If nothing is done, Netanyahu warned, “then the ayatollahs will show their true face and unleash their aggressive fanaticism on the whole world.”