The Israeli Prime Minister gave a speech commemorating the Holocaust without mentioning Iran. It signals a new approach.


Politics and Diplomacy in the Middle East

MENA source

April 28, 2022 • 5:04 pm ET

The Israeli Prime Minister gave a speech commemorating the Holocaust without mentioning Iran. It signals a new approach.

Daniel B Shapiro

In his speech On April 27, at the opening ceremony of Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett deviated from his predecessor’s approach in a very significant way: he made no mention of Iran.

This speech, which will be broadcast live with government officials, Israeli society leaders and Holocaust survivors and their families, is one of the most prominent speeches given annually by an Israeli prime minister.

For the past thirteen years, five of which I have been as US Ambassador to Israel, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the speaker. Along with tributes to the Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators and emotional words in honor of the survivors, he almost always took the opportunity to speak bluntly about the threat posed by Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Often Netanyahu described the threat in terms that conjured up the prospect of a second holocaust – an outcome he vowed Israel would act to prevent even if the world turned away.

Bennett took a different approach. His focus was on the lessons for Israel and the Jewish people about the unique evil of the Holocaust: the persistence of anti-Semitism through the ages; the essential and unbreakable connection of the Jewish people with their historical homeland; Israel’s commitment to be strong and self-reliant; and the need for unity to triumph over divisions in Israel. This last issue reflects Bennett’s current priority as it was targeted by a death threat earlier this week, mailed to his home with a bullet in an envelope, and his broad but sheer coalition government wobbles without a majority.

In part, the difference reflects a generational change. The Holocaust is hardly ancient history for Israelis, especially for the many whose families were devastated and shaped by it. Indeed, for Secretary of State Yair Lapid and Secretary of Defense Benny Gantz, respectively child from a survivorit’s only a generation away.

However, Bennett is more than two decades younger than Netanyahu. Not old enough to remember Israel’s wars of survival in 1967 and 1973, Israel has projected strength throughout its adult life. Deeply aware of the threats Israel still faces, he has at times advocated policies more hawkish than Netanyahu’s, such as Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But as prime minister, he was not one to portray Israel as a country in existential danger – the usual image of his early decades.

Bennett’s decisions in his speech also point to a subtle difference with Netanyahu on Iran. There is no denying that Bennett sees Iran as a mortal enemy, led by a regime that demands the destruction of Israel, arms terrorist proxies and seeks nuclear weapons. And he addressed the Iranian threat in his speech to foreign diplomats on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2022. But when it comes to domestic discourse, Bennett seems to think that portraying Iran as a new Nazi regime that is will enforce a second holocaust; or at least to make that the central argument by linking Iran’s threats to a solemn commemoration of the six million.

This difference is also relevant to Israel’s approach to the fate of efforts to negotiate a revival of the nuclear deal with Iran, from which the Donald Trump administration withdrew in 2018. Those talks are currently at an impasse as Iran and the United States appear unable to settle a dispute over listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a US foreign terrorist organization, although there may be one Break through and reconcile or collapse once and for all.

Bennett, like Netanyahu, made that clear disagrees with the deal. Other voices, notably Gantz, take a more nuanced approach, but basic Israeli policy has not changed.

What has changed is Bennett’s decision to focus less on bickering publicly with the United States and more on improving Israel’s ability to defend itself, including its ability to strike at Iran. That approach will be relevant to any outcome of the talks: a deal that delays Iran’s nuclear program but offers sanctions relief that Tehran will use to fuel its regional aggression, or no deal that leaves Iran as a nuclear emerging power while sanctions are lifted remain. In any case, Bennett is signaling confidence that Israel will be vigilant and strong.

This confidence grows from more than just another philosophical approach. It is also related to the dramatic changes that are underway in the region. While Bennett focused his speech on internal lessons, his only one was a notice on the regional situation in Israel was optimistic: “We are building bridges to new and old friends and deepening our alliances.”

What used to be unthinkable is becoming routine. Israeli leaders regularly visit their Arab counterparts: Bennett in the United Arab Emirates; Lapid and Gantz to Bahrain and Morocco. On March 27, four Arab foreign ministers attended the historic meeting Negev Summit in the most symbolic representation of the new regional orientations. The strong expectation is that the normalization trend initiated by the Abraham Accords will not stop at the countries that are currently signatories. Other actors in and outside the region are considering how they will benefit from an open relationship with Israel.

For Bennett, these positive developments do not eliminate the threats Israel faces, nor relieve it of its obligation to be strong, defend itself and rely on no one. But they do mean a hopeful new reality, an end to Israel’s isolation, and the growing together of a new regional coalition capable of uniting to meet common threats and create new opportunities. It is indeed a different setting for Israelis as they commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Daniel Schapiro is a Distinguished Fellow of the Atlantic Council and former US Ambassador to Israel.

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PICTURED: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pays tribute during a wreath-laying ceremony to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day in Warsaw’s Ghetto Square at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem April 28, 2022. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/POOL


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