UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used his annual United Nations address on Thursday to launch an all-out assault on the historic nuclear deal with Iran, warning that his country would never let the Islamic Republic join the atomic weapons club.
Speaking at the yearly gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu reiterated Israeli criticism of a deal between Iran and major world powers aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear program.
He said that, once international sanctions are lifted, “unleashed and unmuzzled, Iran will go on the prowl.”
Israel, Netanyahu said, would never allow Iran “to break in, to sneak in, or to walk into the nuclear weapons club.”
Israel, which experts and diplomats say has the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, has repeatedly warned it is prepared to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring atomic weapons. Tehran denies wanting nuclear arms and insists its nuclear program is peaceful.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has vigorously defended the July 14 nuclear agreement with Iran against criticism from Republicans in Congress, who tried unsuccessfully to kill the deal, and Israel, describing it as the best way to avoid a new war in the Middle East.
Obama’s already strained relations with Netanyahu deteriorated further in the months before the July nuclear deal because of the Israeli leader’s forceful campaign against it.
During Netanyahu’s speech, Washington was represented by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power’s deputy, David Pressman, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro. Power and Secretary of State John Kerry are both in New York, but Power’s spokeswoman, Hagar Chemali, said they had to join a video conference call with Obama that ended up coinciding with the Israeli speech.
Netanyahu pulled no punches. “We see a world celebrating this bad deal, rushing to embrace and do business with a regime openly committed to our destruction,” he said.
The Israeli leader held up a copy of the latest book by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he said was a “400-page screed detailing his plan to destroy the state of Israel.”
Diplomatic sources have said that Israel and Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, have been discussing how to respond to the nuclear deal and their fear that the lifting of sanctions, expected in the coming months, will embolden Iran to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East.
Without naming countries, Netanyahu said Israel was in touch with Arab states about Iran.
“Israel is working closely with our Arab peace partners to address our common security challenges from Iran and also the security challenges from ISIL (Islamic State) and others,” he said.
Most of Netanyahu’s 43-minute speech was focused on the threat posed by Iran. But toward the end, he responded to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ U.N. speech on Wednesday, in which Abbas said recent Israeli security actions at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem could ignite a religious war.
Netanyahu told the General Assembly that Abbas should stop “spreading lies about Israel’s alleged intentions on the Temple Mount,” and return to direct negotiations to secure peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“Temple Mount,” where Al-Aqsa is located, is the Israeli term for the location. It is one of the holiest sites in Islam and Judaism.
Abbas had accused Israel of undermining U.S. attempts at brokering peace, though Netanyahu placed the blame on the Palestinians.
Netanyahu also accused the General Assembly and the U.N. system as a whole of engaging in incessant, unjustified “Israel-bashing.” Twice during his speech - once at the beginning and again in the middle - he silently stared at the 193-nation General Assembly with an angry look on his face.
His second staredown with the General Assembly lasted for 45 seconds, coming after Netanyahu accused the assembly of maintaining “deafening silence” in the face of Iranian threats to destroy Israel.
The prime minister also made clear that Israel would continue to use military force to repel attacks from Syria and to prevent the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria alongside government forces, from acquiring key weapons.
“Israel will continue to respond forcefully to any attacks against it from Syria,” Netanyahu said, adding that it would also “prevent the transfer of strategic weapons to Hezbollah from and through Syrian territory.”
Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Michelle Nichols and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool