Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday warned Iran of a “nuclear threat” at the United Nations, a statement that his administration soon walked down as a slip of the tongue.
The conservative prime minister claimed that concern about Tehran’s clerics was pushing Israel closer to the Arab world and that his administration was on the “cusp” of a historic agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu, who has repeatedly used the UN stage to issue dark warnings about Tehran, briefly gave pause at the General Assembly when he appeared to threaten nuclear attack if Tehran pursues its own atomic bomb.
“Above all — above all — Iran must face a credible nuclear threat. As long as I’m prime minister of Israel, I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.
His office soon afterward said that Netanyahu had misspoken and that his prepared text said “credible military threat” instead of “credible nuclear threat.”
“It was misread as credible nuclear threat. The prime minister stands by the original text of the speech,” the prime minister’s office said.
Israel has a widely known but undeclared nuclear program. As of January, Israel was believed to possess a stockpile of around 90 nuclear warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Tehran denies seeking a nuclear bomb but has breached limits on uranium enrichment set in a US-brokered 2015 deal following former president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement and reimposition of sweeping sanctions.
Richard Gowan, who follows the United Nations for the International Crisis Group, said it was not uncommon for leaders to misread speeches.
US President Joe Biden, in a key section of his General Assembly speech on Tuesday, warned that giving in to Russia on Ukraine would abandon the principles of the United States when he meant United Nations.
“It’s no secret that Israel has a nuclear deterrent of its own. But I don’t think that Netanyahu was planning to advertise his nukes at the UN,” Gowan said.
No ‘veto’ by Palestinians
Netanyahu also said in his speech that Israel and the Arab states were united by feeling a threat from the “tyrants of Tehran” — the Shiite clerics who have ruled Iran since 1979.
Israel in 2020 established relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, its first normalizations with the Arab world in decades after making peace with neighboring Egypt and Jordan.
The so-called Abraham Accords of 2020 have “heralded the dawn of a new age of peace,” Netanyahu said.
“But I believe that we are at the cusp of an even more dramatic breakthrough — an historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said.
Saudi Arabia is seen as a particularly big prize as it is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
“Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. It will encourage other Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel,” Netanyahu said.
He firmly rejected the insistence of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, who in his own UN speech on Thursday said that there could be no peace in the Middle East without a Palestinian state.
“We must not give the Palestinians a veto over new peace treaties with Arab states,” Netanyahu said.
“The Palestinians could greatly benefit from a broader peace. They should be part of that process. But they should not have a veto over the process.”
The Biden administration has been leading talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, recently said that the two sides were getting closer.
Netanyahu, a close ally of Trump, went out of his way to praise the diplomacy by Biden, who has criticized the right-wing Israeli leader over a judicial overhaul seen by critics as undermining democracy.