The United Nations General Assembly is not a required event for Israeli leaders — Ariel Sharon, for example, appeared there only once in his five years as prime minister.
Add to that the fact that a meeting with the US president is not on the itinerary and the awkward timing between Yom Kippur, Shabbat and Succot, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s New York trip seemed almost pointless.
But there were two reasons he took off with a reinforced battalion of press officers hours after the fast ended.
After months of speculation and pressures over the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, Mr Netanyahu needed the biggest global podium available to have the last word before the US presidential elections is the only story on the world’s agenda. And since Israelis are also going to the polls in the not-too-distant future, the speech, timed for prime-time news on Israel’s television channels, was designed to set the tone for the upcoming election.
The most abiding memory of the speech will be the bomb cartoon used by Mr Netanyahu to demonstrate Iran’s atomic progress. But probably the most important passage was: “Now they’re well into the second stage. And by next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.”
Here Mr Netanyahu was admitting that, for now, Israel is delaying any plans it may had have to attack Iran this year and has extended the famous “window of opportunity” by a few months. The admission should reduce somewhat the tension between Jerusalem and Washington while keeping the Iranian threat in the limelight.
Mr Netanyahu’s message to President Barack Obama and to the Israeli electorate is the same — there will be no further extensions after summer 2013 and, to underline that, he used a thick red marker on the bomb cartoon. Iran will continue to dominate the agenda, he promised, and voters should think twice before choosing any other prime minister to tackle it.
In a further attempt to bridge differences with the Obama administration, Mr Netanyahu said he “very much” appreciated the position taken by the president in his General Assembly speech two days earlier. This was despite the fact that Mr Obama dedicated most of his speech to a eulogy for the late US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, the turmoil in the Arab world and the importance of freedom of speech.
On Iran, Mr Obama only gave two statements. He attacked the regime for propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria and repeated that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon”.
Despite Mr Netanyahu’s calls, the president would not set out a red line on Iran and said that there was still “time and space” for diplomacy.
Unlike Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not facing an election. This year was his last General Assembly appearance and he is already a lame-duck, estranged from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and shorn of much of his power. His speech was a rambling vision of a new world-order and the coming of the Mahdi to liberate mankind. It contained little indications of Iran’s nuclear and foreign policy and reflected the fact that he has very limited influence, if any, on the future of his country.