There is something ridiculous in how the Israeli media—of which I am a proud member—covers the annual UN General Assembly. Year after year, in the last week of September or the first of October, a dull and mostly drama-free event featuring diplomats in suits takes over Israel’s news completely for two or three days. Almost every outlet in the country sends a reporter or a camera crew to cover the proceedings in New York, with the highlight of the event being Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s annual speech, usually scheduled for about 12:30 p.m. ET—just in time for the main evening news broadcasts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The problem with the magnitude of this coverage is that, for all the hoopla, the last time real breaking news concerning Israel came out of the UNGA was in 2012, when Netanyahu used his famous bomb illustration to warn about Iran’s nuclear program. At the time, a heated internal discussion was taking place in Israel about whether or not the government should order an aerial strike against Iran, and when Netanyahu held up an image of a bomb on stage, no TV producer with a pulse could ignore it. Since then, however, the Prime Minister’s speeches have failed to generate another “bomb moment.” In 2013, 2014, and 2015, Netanyahu’s speeches came during the final days of the Assembly, after other world leaders—from Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin to Dilma Rouseff and Barack Obama—had already generated more than enough headlines. And yet in Israel, the Prime Minister’s speech kept receiving the same amount of attention from the local media.
There are a number of reasons why this annual speech is treated as a special event, worthy of live coverage and extended analysis before and after it takes place. One reason is Israel’s “special relationship” with the UN, which is so grossly biased against the Jewish state that seeing our leader “stick it to those anti-Semites” will forever generate excitement among many Israelis. In addition, Israelis retain a collective historical memory of November 29, 1947, when thousands of Zionist families in mandatory Palestine sat next to their radios and listened to the vote at UN headquarters on the Partition Plan, which led to the founding of the State of Israel. The annual festivities surrounding the Prime Minister’s speech arise from that historical memory—which is especially relevant to the career of Netanyahu, who rose to national prominence in the mid-1980s when he was appointed Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.
In some years, all this leads to is an anti-climax once the Prime Minister’s speech is over. After building up suspense for two or three days, with briefings from “sources close to the Prime Minister” who promise that “the speech will contain major surprises,” the media carries it live—only to start trashing it the second it is done. “There was nothing new in Netanyahu’s words,” the pundits immediately charge. “The same old clichés we heard last year and the year before.” The speech usually revolves around the same themes: the danger posed by Iran, the hypocrisy of the international community toward Israel, and the incitement that makes it impossible to reach peace with the Palestinians. All are valid points, but not new or newsworthy in any way. Yet despite this tiring repetition, the same exact ritual of high expectations, live coverage, and post-mortem evisceration keeps happening year after year.
On the surface, Netanyahu’s visit to the United Nations this year wasn’t any different. While his meetings with the sitting U.S. President and the two main contenders to succeed him were obviously worthy of the intense news coverage they received, Netanyahu’s speech before the General Assembly contained little to no headline-generating elements, except perhaps in how he replied to the speech of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who spoke hours before him. (More on that later.) But while his speech wasn’t exactly newsworthy, it would be wrong to conclude that there was nothing new or interesting about it. I found one characteristic of the speech important to note: It was optimistic.
Optimism has never been never one of Netanyahu’s trademarks. His public pronouncements, whether in Hebrew or in English, usually carry an alarmist message—warning his listeners about the dangers Israel and Western civilization are facing in these precarious times. Take his speech at the 2015 UNGA, for example: he mentioned Iran more than sixty times. There were more than 10 references to nuclear bombs, weapons, warheads, or arms races. Even some of the Prime Minister’s greatest American fans, who come every year to fill the half-empty UNGA hall during his speech, were busy with their cell phones while he proceeded through the familiar list of threats posed by “militant Islamists” from Tehran to Africa. How many times can one hear the same talking points?
Fast-forward to 2016, and mentions of Iran have been cut from more than sixty to less than 15. The arch-enemy that was the main topic of Netanyahu’s speeches for years was confined this time to three short paragraphs. He used the free space created by Iran’s downsizing promote his new theme—”change.” This word appeared only five times in his 2015 speech, mostly in a negative context (“Iran hasn’t changed”), but was mentioned more than 15 times this year, mostly in a positive tone.
“Change will happen in this hall, because back home, your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes towards Israel. And sooner or later, that’s going to change the way you vote on Israel at the UN” Netanyahu told the delegations sitting in front of him. He talked about change—for the better—in Israel’s relationships with China, India, Russia, Japan, African nations, and even some countries in the Arab world. “Governments are changing their attitudes towards Israel because they know that Israel can help them protect their peoples, can help them feed them, can help them better their lives”—this was the main argument of the speech.
This past year, Netanyahu ended his speech by exhorting the nations of the world to support Israel because Israel is fighting their fight against terrorism, and defending them from their own enemies. It was the familiar, bleak Netanyahu, who looks at the world and sees only threats and dangers around every corner. This year, he chose a different closing argument, urging the world to cooperate with Israel because “The future belongs to those who innovate and this is why the future belongs to countries like Israel. Israel wants to be your partner in seizing that future.”
The speech itself will probably change little to nothing in Israel’s international standing. But it will be interesting to see if Netanyahu keeps his optimism and continues describing Israel as a strong and confident country, with which the world can benefit from cooperating on multiple fronts, not only on counter-terrorism. Listening to his speech this year, I recalled a conversation I had a few years ago with a senior Israeli official, who complained about the “self-contradiction” in Netanyahu’s regular talking points before foreign crowds: “He tells the world—’Iran is about to destroy us, we are surrounded by existential dangers from every direction, but you should invest in our economy, it will be good for you.’ That makes no sense to anyone who is actually paying attention.”
Netanyahu, it seems, is starting to choose the second part of the narrative over the first one—perhaps because according to the vast majority of Israel’s current and former security and intelligence chiefs, there is absolutely no external existential threat to our country. So why not focus less on the dangers Israel suffers and more on the opportunities it offers other nations?
The one part of Netanyahu’s speech that was far from rosy and optimistic was his discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While he did express his interest in solving the conflict, and even referred in a vague sentence to “the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative,” he argued that it is impossible to have any real progress towards peace at the moment because of the leadership on the Palestinian side. One can only hope that in his speech next year he will extend his optimism to that topic as well.