Politics: The orator from the opposition

Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu has ironically shaped up as one of the government's top spokesmen.

netanyahu fists 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
netanyahu fists 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
As cracks have begun to form in the unified national front in support of the IDF's operations in the North, one man has emerged as the government's top backer and one of its most eloquent defenders: ironically, the head of the opposition, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert make no effort to hide their personal animosity for each other. But that does not stop the Prime Minister's Office from sending the foreign press to Netanyahu to explain the government's policies. Since the conflict began three weeks ago, Netanyahu has given dozens of interviews to CNN and Fox News, Sky News and the BBC, returning to "the hot seat" in front of the cameras, where some say he looks more comfortable than he ever was in a cabinet seat. Netanyahu told The Jerusalem Post that he saw no problem with speaking on the government's behalf while he heads its opposition. He said he did the same for Ehud Barak's government when the wave of Palestinian violence began and during Operation Defensive Shield when he went to Washington as a "concerned citizen" before Ariel Sharon appointed him foreign minister. "I feel like I have been given an emergency draft notice and I must do my civic duty to counteract criticism of Israel," Netanyahu said. "In the middle of a war, there can be no differences of opinion. The IDF's success is in the interest of every Israeli." Rating the foreign news networks, Netanyahu said that the American Fox News Network was the most favorable to Israel and the BBC was the worst. He said there were good and bad interviewers at every network and he did not want to generalize, but that at the BBC, some of his interlocutors were "needlessly nasty." "These are my best interviews because they get me riled up and then I summon my best arguments," Netanyahu said. "In the end, your passion as a speaker has to come through to reveal your inner conviction and the justice of your cause." For instance, when a BBC interviewer accused Israel of harming Lebanese civilians, Netanyahu compared the situation to the British Royal Air Force's fight against the Nazis in World War II. He said that when the RAF targeted the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen in 1944, they missed and hit a children's hospital, but "that didn't make the British pilots terrorists and it didn't make the Nazis the good guys." Netanyahu first made a name for himself when he acted as a regular spokesman for Israel in the 1980s while serving as ambassador to the United Nations and deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington. Since then, he has spoken on the country's behalf during countless conflicts and standoffs. Asked how the current situation compared to its predecessors, Netanyahu said that Israel started off in a better position, because the world saw that the fighting began with unprovoked attacks by Hizbullah and Hamas on Israel's sovereign territory, killing and kidnapping soldiers and rocketing civilians. Netanyahu said that in interviews he tries to stress four main points: Hizbullah's culpability for civilian casualties in Lebanon, Israel's "disproportionately mild" response to rocket attacks, Hizbullah's refusal to accept Israel in any boundaries and the "world's wake-up call" to the threat of Iranian weapons. "Hizbullah deployed its rockets in civilian areas with a deliberate goal of exacting civilian casualties on the Lebanese side," Netanyahu says in interviews. "That's why the onus for the civilian casualties on both sides is on Hizbullah." Responding to charges of a disproportionate Israeli response to Hizbullah, Netanyahu compares Israel to other countries that were targeted, such as England when it was attacked by the Nazis. He said the British responded by leveling entire German cities like Dresden with casualties in the tens of thousands. Netanyahu said that the fact that Israel was attacked after leaving every inch of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip proved that the reason for the conflict was not because of any territorial dispute but just because it exists. "No one believes that if we leave every inch of the West Bank it would make an iota of a difference," he said. "When Nasrallah says he is rocketing occupied settlements, he means Haifa, Tiberias and Safed." According to Netanyahu, Iran made a mistake by allowing Hizbullah to instigate the conflict. Rather than distract the world from its nuclear weapons program, it convinced much more of the world that Iran poses a real threat. "Iran succeeded momentarily in deflecting attention from its attempt to become a nuclear power but long term, it had a tremendous boomerang effect," Netanyahu said. "Iran is rocketing a Western country. The world should wake up and see that they have rockets that can reach Europe, they will soon be able to reach the US and if they get nuclear weapons, the entire world will be in peril." Netanyahu's Likud supporters believe that just like he used his platform in the foreign press to springboard to political success in the past, the service he is doing for the country now will remind Israelis how much of an asset he is. They said they hoped the conflict would mark the turning point between a down and an up in Netanyahu's career. But Netanyahu rejected that theory, saying that not enough people in Israel were aware of his appearances in the foreign press and their impact. He said that he had a different theory regarding the conflict's influence on his political future. "What will help the Likud is that after the fighting stops, people will assess what the Likud said about the effects of unilateral disengagement and what other parties said, and then they will come to the right conclusions," he surmised.