Love or hate him, respect or disdain him, few can deny Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu is an effective and powerful speaker. And one of the elements that
makes him so is his ability to simplify.
At the UN General Assembly
meeting last year, Netanyahu took out a cartoonish poster of a bomb to draw a
red line on the Iranian nuclear program that everyone could understand. At first
he was mocked, yet – as The Washington Post editorialized months later – the
Iranians took notice and have not crossed that line.
On Tuesday, he also
made things very simple.
“I want there to be no confusion on this point,”
Netanyahu said toward the end of a 30-minute speech
devoted overwhelmingly to
the Iranian nuclear issue. “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons.
If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
any simpler, or clearer, than that.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Israel will
never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly
promises to wipe us off the map,” he said. “Against such a threat, Israel will
have no choice but to defend itself.”
Those words were meant less for the
Iranian leadership and more for the heads of the countries now set to engage the
smiling, benevolent-looking, soft-spoken Iranian President Hassan
With these words, Netanyahu put them on notice that if they fall
prey to Rouhani’s tricks, if they let him off the ropes where the sanctions have
now placed him, then Israel – even if it must act alone – will act.
bluffing? Maybe, but Israel has proven in the past – particularly with its
attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and again reportedly against a
Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 – that when it feels its back is against the
wall, it will act as it sees fit, even against world opinion.
One of the
governing assumptions in Jerusalem over the last few months has been that the
world finally applied harsh sanctions on Iran in large part because it feared an
Israeli military action. It was no coincidence that the harshest sanctions were
taken in 2012, after a very public debate in Israel over when and how and if to
Only when the world was convinced that Netanyahu was
serious and might indeed take military action did Europe implement sanctions
that even Netanyahu admitted have crippled the Iranian economy. And these
sanctions were counterintuitive in that they also hurt European economies at a
time when they were hurting badly enough as it was.
The fear of Israeli
military action, and how that could devastate the world’s economy, overcame a
concern in Europe about how sanctions would impact their own.
wants the idea of a possible Israeli strike still firmly in the world’s mind now
as well, as it sits down to speak with Iran.
It was telling what
Netanyahu did not say in his address. He did not say not to negotiate. He did
not rule out or even come out against diplomacy.
Negotiate, he said, but
do so while keeping the sanctions in place, and with a clear sense of what the
end-game needs to be: The complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear
Just as you can’t be partially pregnant, you can’t have part of
a nuclear weapons program.
As he proved from Rouhani’s own comments in
2005, having fuel-cycle capability to enrich uranium at 3.5 percent means that a
country possesses the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
“We all want
to give diplomacy with Iran a chance to succeed, but when it comes to Iran, the
greater the pressure, the greater the chance. Three decades ago, president
Ronald Reagan famously advised, ‘trust but verify.’ When it comes to Iran’s
nuclear weapons program, here’s my advice: Distrust, dismantle and verify,” he
More than any Israeli prime minister perhaps since Menachem Begin,
Netanyahu unabashedly summons historical imagery in mustering his arguments on
Israel’s behalf. He shies away neither from invoking the Bible to demonstrate
the Jewish people’s connection to the Land, nor from the Holocaust or the Jews’
tragic past to explain what animates the country’s security
Some criticize him for this, both inside and outside the
country, saying he is living in the past and that it is time to move on. He
“Now, I know that some in the international
community think I’m exaggerating this threat,” he said. “The last century has
taught us that when a radical regime with global ambitions gets awesome power,
sooner or later its appetite for aggression knows no bounds. That’s the central
lesson of the 20th century. And we cannot forget it. The world may have
forgotten this lesson. The Jewish people have not.”
Too many in the world
underestimate the degree to which the Jewish past continues to animate Israel’s
present and its hopes and fears for the future. Netanyahu sets them
“In our time the biblical prophecies are being realized,”
Netanyahu said in a very politically incorrect statement with which he concluded
his speech. “As the prophet Amos said, ‘They shall rebuild ruined cities and
inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine. They shall till
gardens and eat their fruit. And I will plant them upon their soil never to be
uprooted again.’” That’s one side of the coin.
The other was the story he
told just prior to quoting from Amos about his grandfather who was beaten
unconscious by a group of anti- Semitic hoodlums in 19th century
“They beat him senseless, they left him for dead, and before he
passed out, covered in his own blood, he said to himself, ‘What a disgrace, what
a disgrace. The descendants of the Maccabees lie in the mud powerless to defend
themselves.’” It is no coincidence that Netanyahu told that story at the end of
a speech devoted primarily to Iran. Though much of the world might think that
history has marched on, and that this is melodramatic rhetoric, for Netanyahu
Jewish history – both the glorious days of the prophets and the darkest days of
the pogroms – is alive and real.
Those who want to understand what makes
Netanyahu tick, and what he may or may not do, would do well to study carefully
his latest UN address, the one without a gimmick, but with a simple, powerful
message: Israel will act if it needs to, even if it must do so by itself.