Iranian Threat: Paying a ‘hasbara’ price in pursuit of strategic goal

Playing by the public diplomacy playbook, Netanyahu would have matched Rouhani’s charm offensive with a double charm offensive of his own; he would have been a media darling; he also would have missed his target.

Netanyahu addresses UN 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu addresses UN 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday, just before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took the UN podium and declared Israel would act alone against Iran if need be, Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif called him the “most isolated man in the UN.” Zarif was dreaming.
Netanyahu was not isolated in the UN, and Israel – despite what we often tell ourselves, with classic Jewish mistrust – is not isolated in the world. Do not mistake the publication of EU settlement guidelines barring European cooperation with Israeli entities beyond the pre-1967 lines, or a failed, high profile BDS campaign to get aging hip-swinger Tom Jones to cancel a trip to Israel, with international isolation.
The leader of an isolated nation does not spend some seven hours in Washington – in the middle of the storm over the federal government’s shutdown – in tête-à-têtes with the US president, vice president and secretary of state, as Netanyahu did Monday.
An isolated country does not attract a $130 million investment in one of its main universities from Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing – the eighth richest man in the world – who then says of Israel that it is not a small country, but a state with an “overflowing spring of knowledge and ability; a riveting place that provides unlimited opportunities.”
Isolated? Zarif’s Iran should be so isolated.
And, though this may sound contradictory in light of Netanyahu’s declaration in his Tuesday address to the UN General Assembly that Israel will act alone against Iran if need be, Israel is not isolated in its skeptical-in-the-extreme view of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s charm and smiles campaign.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that some two months ago, Israel was approached by a key Western country with the request that it keep banging the Iranian drum loudly to keep the issue alive at a time when it was being pushed off the agenda because of Rouhani’s “moderation,” as well as the dramatic and traumatic events first in Egypt, then in Syria.
Also, toward the end of Netanyahu’s 33-minute speech on Tuesday, he made a comment that sent perceptive ears ringing.
“The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy,” he said.
“And this affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes.”
The next night, Channel 2’s Udi Segal reported that in recent weeks, there has been a series of secret and intensive meetings between Israel and senior representatives from the Persian Gulf, to coordinate steps regarding Iran’s new diplomatic offensive.
Many in the West – the US and Europe – and many more in the Persian Gulf liked the tough line they heard from Netanyahu at the UN, though they can’t publicly admit it for various reasons.
Some in US President Barack Obama’s administration and in select European capitals liked it because with Israel still threatening military action against Iran, they have retained a big stick when they begin speaking softly to the Iranians on October 15-16 in Geneva.
A credible military threat is what recently brought the Syrians, with Russia’s urging, to agree to dismantle its chemical weapons program. Obama’s handling of that Syrian crisis – as well as his diplomatic overtures to the Iranians – have removed for the time being a credible US military threat against Iran. So it is good to still have a real Israeli threat in the room to move the Iranians. It is also likely that this good-cop, bad-cop division of labor was discussed when Obama and Netanyahu met in the White House on Monday.
The time the prime minister and the US president spent talking face-to-face was surely not wasted discussing whether Rouhani could or could not be trusted. The two sides certainly know where the other stands on that issue. In such high-level meetings, time is not exhausted on well-known positions.
Rather, what generally happens is that a common goal is defined, and the tactics for reaching that goal are hashed out – who does what, who says what.
Both the US and Israel share the goal of keeping Iran from a bomb. The question is how to do it? A day after the White House meeting, the world got a peek at Israel’s role.
“I want there to be no confusion on this point,” Netanyahu said in his speech. “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
Another partner who surely applauded Netanyahu’s tough words, though they would never admit it, are the Persian Gulf states, which are extremely concerned about the possibility of a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu set the Iranians on notice that he was speaking on behalf of these countries as well, when he said that if Israel stood alone, it “will know that we will be defending many, many others.”
Even as Netanyahu was clearly getting his message across to the Iranians, on a strictly hasbara level of making Israel’s case to as wide an audience as possible, the speech was a failure.
Experienced public diplomacy practitioners will tell you that the key to getting Israel’s message across – especially when dealing with a North American audience – is to keep it hopeful, upbeat and optimistic.
Don’t say there will never be peace, even if you believe it, because the North American audience always wants to hold out hope for a peaceful resolution. Be conciliatory, not aggressive; be empathetic, not sarcastic; and by all means keep God and Jewish historical tragedies out of the mix. God-talk gets many Americans nervous, and people are tired of hearing about Jewish suffering.
The prime minister, who knows the rules of hasbara very well, broke them all in his speech.
Netanyahu warned of military action against Iran, not peace. He held out no hope that Rouhani was sincere in his “moderation.”
He was sarcastic, not empathetic.
He was – as many media outlets reported – aggressive, not conciliatory. And not only did Netanyahu bring God into the picture by quoting from Amos’s prophecy about the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of ruined cities and planting of new vineyards, but he also mentioned Jewish suffering with the tale of his grandfather beaten senseless by anti-Semites in 19th-century Europe.
None of that, predictably, played overly well in the mainstream American media.
The New York Times excoriated him for tying to sabotage the talks (the same New York Times which Netanyahu directly criticized in his speech by quoting from an editorial it ran in favor of diplomacy with North Korea in 2005, just a year before Pyongyang detonated a nuclear devise, showing just how much it had duped the world and the paper’s editorial board).
And Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary and current MSNBC analyst, said: “I don’t think Israel helps itself [with] some of the rhetoric that you heard from the prime minister.” Gibbs said the speech was “addressed to the Israeli public,” and that Israel “did not help itself with Netanyahu’s statement, especially that the world has forgotten what happened in the 20th century.”
But this speech was not addressed to the Israeli public. The Israeli public already knows what Netanyahu told the world about Iran’s duplicity. It was aimed at Iran and those negotiating with Iran.
Since Iran started developing its nuclear weapons program some three decades ago, a lot more has been going on beneath the water than above the surface – like in some high-stakes water polo match.
Below the water, the Iranians, as Netanyahu pointed out in his UN speech, were building secret nuclear facilities at Natanz and Fordow. On the surface, they pledged allegiance to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Below the water, the West – including, but not relegated, to Israel – were taking actions to prevent the specter of an armed Iranian regime. On the surface sanctions were applied, a few scientists were assassinated, computer worms sent centrifuges spinning out of control and straw companies were set up worldwide selling the Iranians faulty equipment. Again, all those steps took place on the surface and were things the public knew about. Beneath the surface, much more was, and is, taking place to keep the Iranians from becoming what they hoped to be by now: the world’s 10th nuclear armed state.
So too a lot more then met the eye was taking place during Netanyahu’s visit to the US and speech at the UN. On the surface, it looked simply like Israel squaring off alone against the world. Below the surface, it was Israel playing its tactical role in a complex chess game to get Iran to stop its nuclear march through diplomacy.
In April of this year, The Washington Post editorialized that despite a breakdown in talks that month between the world powers and Iran, neither the US nor Israel was under pressure to consider immediate military action. The proponents of more diplomacy, the paper wrote, can thank Netanyahu, a man “they have often ridiculed or reviled.” Netanyahu’s explicit setting of a “red line” appears to have accomplished what neither negotiations nor sanctions have yielded: concrete Iranian action to limit its enrichment, the paper wrote.
“A host of commentators, both in the United States and Israel, scoffed at what they called Mr. Netanyahu’s ‘cartoonish’ picture of a bomb and the line he drew across it,” The Washington Post editorialized.
“Iran, too, dismissed what its UN ambassador called ‘an unfounded and imaginary graph.’ But then a funny thing happened: The regime began diverting more of its stockpile to the manufacture of fuel plates for a research reactor.”
In other words, Netanyahu got Iran’s attention at that time. Chances are he got its attention this time as well, though – like then – to do so he paid a public diplomacy price in coming across as overly aggressive.
Sometimes, however, it is necessary to pay a price in hasbara for a greater strategic goal.