Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the general debate of the sixty-seventh session of the General Assembly. Credit: UN Photo/J Carrier
– When world leaders packed their bags and headed home last week, there was one lingering memory of the General Assembly’s high-level debate: Benjamin Netanyahu’s dramatic presentation of a cartoonish nuclear red line, which hit the front pages of most mainstream newspapers in the United States.
The Israeli prime minister warned Iran against crossing that red line even though the Jewish state itself had crossed it when it went nuclear many moons ago.
As Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Middle East Report, told IPS, “The real absurdity of Netanyahu lecturing the world about nuclear weapons was precisely that – an Israeli leader lecturing the world about the dangers of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.”
The fact of the matter is that not only is Israel the region’s sole nuclear power, and not only has it on previous occasions all but threatened to use these weapons of mass destruction, but it has since its establishment consistently and steadfastly rejected ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Rabbani said.
“It’s a bit like listening to (Hustler magazine publisher) Larry Flynt denouncing pornography – though to be fair to Flynt, it’s unlikely he will reach the levels of hypocrisy displayed by Netanyahu,” said Rabbani, a Middle East expert who has written extensively on the politics of the volatile region.
Still, most Middle East leaders, speaking during the high-level debate here, seem to have accepted Israel’s double standards on nuclear politics – and with hardly an aggressive response to Netanyahu’s address to the Assembly.
Besides standard bearers like Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the new generation of Arab leaders who addressed the General Assembly included Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Libya’s Mohamed Yousef El Magarief and Tunisia’s Moncef Marzouki.
As one Asian diplomat put it, “Nethanyahu’s nuke-oriented speech ended with a bang while the speeches of most Middle East leaders ended with a whimper.”
Asked why Arab leaders were reticent, Ian Williams, a senior analyst at Foreign Policy in Focus and Deadline Pundit, told IPS, “Perhaps one of the problems is that Arab leaders and their people are so aware that Israel has nuclear weapons they do not realise how much of a taboo subject it is in the West.
“So while they have on other occasions referred to Israel’s nuclear capacity, they were slow to riposte on the flagrant hypocrisy of Netanyahu posturing with a cutout card bomb while standing on 200 real ones,” said Williams, a longstanding observer of Middle Eastern politics.
Even as Iran continues to insist that its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes, Israel continues to taunt the Iranians.
As Netanyahu told delegates last week, “The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb but at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb.”
Rabbani told IPS, “Many observers commented on the – literally and figuratively – cartoonish nature of his remarks, replete with a Looney Tunes graphic of a bomb with fuse.
“If Netanyahu wanted to present a point of view with potential interest, he would instead have explained why Israel remains committed to rejecting the long-standing Egyptian initiative for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and more importantly, why Israel only days before Netanyahu mounted the U.N. podium rejected participation in the Helsinki conference to be held later this year and backed by the U.S., to debate the establishment of a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East,” Rabbani added.
He said Arab leaders appear not to have directly challenged Israel’s war-mongering towards Iran – in part because some Arab states desperately hope such an attack materialises.
Others either do not want to strain relations with influential Arab states for whom containment of Iran is their primary foreign policy objective, or risk tensions with Washington by being seen as supporting Iran in its conflict with Israel.
“It is a very different Arab world than existed mere decades ago. Yet it is also beginning to change, and is in the process of a fundamental transformation,” Rabbani said.
Thus Egyptian President Morsi devoted more than a few words to the Palestine question, and spoke about it in ways that were unthinkable during the Mubarak era. “Expect to see more of the same in years ahead,” he said.
Rabbani also said there is a growing perception in the Middle East that the United States is going the way of the British and French before them, that its imperial moment is behind it and that “we are witnessing the gradual decline of American influence in the region.”
This in part helps explain why so many Arab leaders felt the need to harp on about the controversy ignited by the ludicrous yet patently offensive video clip “Innocence of Muslims”, which ignited protests throughout the Muslim world.
“The video, or at least reports about it, caused genuine outrage in the region. And condemning this clip was a convenient method for leaders known to be excessively close to Washington to demonstrate they haven’t yet surrendered that final shred of national dignity,” Rabbani said.
Williams said Morsi was relatively circumspect in addressing the controversial video.
“Christian leaders in the West have called for blasphemy laws to be applied in the past and few countries are absolutists on free speech. His approach was balanced with nuances to head off criticism at home and abroad,” Williams added.
“His engagement of Iran over Syria did of course challenge the U.S.-Israeli consensus, but he is not alone and already seems to have produced some results since (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmedinijad’s discursive speech did not mention Syria.”