Can Netanyahu sell the Iranian threat?

Polls are showing the voters are starting to buy into Netanyahu's message again.

bibi netanyahu 88 (photo credit: )
bibi netanyahu 88
(photo credit: )
You've got to hand it to Binyamin Netanyahu. The Likud chairman was warning loudly about the Iranian bomb long before other significant figures in Israeli politics. In this year's election, while Olmert's Kadima party was marketing the second phase of disengagement - this time from the West Bank - and Amir Peretz was running on Labor's new social agenda, Netanyahu tried to put the public face to face with Iran and its Hamas proxies. His rivals branded him an "alarmist," but they needn't have bothered - the public wasn't buying Netanyahu's wares anyway. Thoroughly discredited and at the lowest ebb of his popularity, he led Likud to its worst electoral result ever. But Netanyahu kept on. In his first Knesset speech as head of the opposition after the government's swearing in, he pledged the Likud's support for any move Israel would take against Iran, a message he reiterated at the session at the end of the Lebanon War, when everyone was already predicting the government's swift demise and his return to the Prime Minister's Office. Ehud Olmert is still holding on, but at least the polls are showing the voters are starting to buy into Netanyahu's message again. And it's not only the public; the rest of the political leadership is now singing the same tune. Why is this so surprising? Not so long ago, the prevailing wisdom was that of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, that the less said in the open about the Iranian threat, the better. Sharon thought the worst thing was for Israel to be seen as leading the anti-Iranian front. He thought that would only give the rest of the international community an excuse to dismiss the issue as a regional conflict and not get involved. When Sharon was around, the feeling was that even if we weren't hearing anything about Iran, things were being taken care of. Now Sharon isn't around and silence is no longer golden. Netanyahu, of course, won't say so in public but he accuses Sharon and his colleagues of neglecting the Iranian threat while putting all of Israel's resources and efforts on the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. As one of his advisers put it this week, "they were otherwise disengaged." There is also a clear political advantage for Netanyahu here - instead of continuing to criticize the government over the shortcomings of the war in Lebanon and attacking Olmert over allegations of corruption, like most of his colleagues, he is using the Iranian issue to recreate his image as a responsible and consensual statesman concerned with high strategy and above petty political accounting. Olmert might still be trying to revive his Palestinian plans in festive speeches and secret meetings, but the priorities are beginning to shift. The government realizes that the public is no longer prepared to rely on them without question, and that was the reason for Mossad Chief Meir Dagan's rare appearance on Monday at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where he said the Iranians were about three years away from their bomb. Somehow, Dagan's appearance was headlined as giving the "all-clear signal," though how reassured the public might be remains to be seen. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is taking his show on the road. Now he's trying to sell his dire predictions to the international community. The move to haul Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in front of the International Court at The Hague over charges of encouraging genocide is little more than a publicity stunt. The court is notoriously ineffectual and the very last place Israel can hope for justice. Netanyahu's special briefing of the foreign diplomats on Monday wasn't especially useful either. He didn't hand them any exclusive intelligence they had not yet seen and it's difficult to envision ambassadors to Israel, rarely senior diplomatic figures, influencing their countries' foreign policy. While he might be doing his bit on the international stage but Netanyahu's real public is still the local crowd. The diplomatic offensive of the head of the opposition is designed to highlight the shortcomings of the elected government, too disoriented and disjointed to mount its own credible campaign against the gravest threat facing Israel.