The powerful impact of theater

While Israelis seem to resent political theater, in America it makes a difference.

Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏)
Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows how to give a great speech. Wherever you stand politically, you cannot deny this fact.
Even critics of last week’s address to the US Congress recognize the impressive way Netanyahu made his case to the American people.
He showed gracious respect for his audience, stayed on message, and peppered his comments with memorable one-liners. (My personal favorite: “When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”) Some claim the speech was just another example of Bibi playing politics. If so, the game plan was lousy. For all the uproar, the Likud has not gotten much of a bounce. Its electoral prospects are weaker than ever before. The latest polls show the Zionist Union leading by as many as three Knesset seats.
Israelis are quick to separate talk from action, and a common refrain is that Netanyahu has not “done” anything during his six years in office. As former Mossad director Meir Dagan declared at the anti-Netanyahu demonstration at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night, these have been “six years in which he did not lead one real move to change the face of the region or to create the foundation for a better future.”
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Dagan prefaced his remarks with the disclaimer that he is “not a man of the stage... not a man of speeches.” It was as if being able to speak well and rouse your listeners is some kind of a defect to be shunned. Dismissive Israelis lump Netanyahu together with Barack Obama in one key respect: soaring oratory that does not deliver results.
While Israelis seem to resent political theater, in America it makes a difference. Ronald Reagan, known as the “great communicator,” is widely viewed as one of the most accomplished presidents of the 20th century. For his part, President Obama thrives on perceived rhetorical talents. Back in 2010 he famously told a group of Democratic elected officials not to worry about mid-term election pressures, reminding them that, unlike in 1994, “you’ve got me.” Even though Obama has since lost some of his luster with the US electorate, he is still at his best in front of the lectern.
We Americans love being told what we want to hear. In the workplace, when we want something done, we carefully choose our language and tone. We stroke egos. We sugarcoat negatives to make them easier to swallow. Israelis may find this charade insufferable, and it is their stereotypical candor that makes them stand out. Get to the point. Stop wasting time.
Tell it like it is. Protocol be damned. These are the common features of Israeli business culture which have supercharged performance of the nation’s entrepreneurial sectors.
When it comes to weighty matters of national security, however, it is worth remembering that Israeli sensibilities are the exception to the rule.
It may have been the ultimate act of chutzpah for the prime minister to circumvent the White House, but the speech to Congress was elegant and persuasive. It delivered on several counts.
Reminiscent to many of Winston Churchill’s greatest moments, the flourish of the speech put discussion of Iran’s nuclear program on center stage. Lawmakers who have power to redirect the administration now understand – and care about – the most problematic aspects of the ongoing negotiation. They are taking steps to reassert the role of Congress in approving international agreements of this magnitude.
The prime minister could have offered his talking points in closed-door sessions. Government officials have no doubt been doing as much both before and since the controversial speech. But speaking in the public forum made a bigger impact. Try though they might to disparage Netanyahu’s conduct, critics and rivals of the prime minister have failed to recognize the simple truth: Americans value political theater.
It is not fakery to us. It inspires us and calls us to action. Some 16,000 pro-Israel activists of AIPAC heard the call on March 3 in Washington.
That very day we proceeded to lobby all 535 members of Congress. The trajectory of the negotiation has shifted.
The author is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRube.