Are Netanyahu’s messages to the Iranians working?

The current video was able to trigger a discussion in Iran and annoy the leaders because it is dealing with a very acute and sensitive problem now for Iran: water issues.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pouring water during a video aimed at the people of Iran.   (photo credit: screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pouring water during a video aimed at the people of Iran.
(photo credit: screenshot)
Some six million people, including hundreds of thousands of Iranians, have viewed a video uploaded last week of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pouring himself a glass of water, taking a gulp, and offering Israeli water technology to the drought-hit Iranian people.
According to officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, this is one of the most widely viewed videos Netanyahu has yet placed on various social media platforms.
The video has Netanyahu sitting behind his desk – a pitcher of water on the table, a portrait of his family behind his right shoulder and a set of the Talmud on the bookcase behind him – making an “unprecedented offer” to Iran.
“The Iranian people are the victims of a cruel and tyrannical regime that denies them vital water,” he said. “Israel stands with the people of Iran and that is why I want to help save countless Iranian lives.”
In the two-minute video, Netanyahu relates that Iran’s meteorological organization said nearly 95% of Iran suffers from some level of drought, and that a former agriculture minister said some 50 million Iranians could be forced out of their homes because of Iran’s ecological crisis.
Israel, he says, has developed cutting-edge technological solutions to water problems, and wants to share that information with the Iranian people. He announces that Israel is launching a website in Farsi with detailed plans on how Iranians can recycle their waste water.
“We will show how Iranian farmers can save their crops and feed their families. The Iranian regime shouts, ‘Death to Israel.’ In response, Israel shouts, ‘Life to the Iranian people,’” Netanyahu says. “The people of Iran are good and decent – they shouldn’t have to face such a cruel regime alone.”
Netanyahu’s English-language spokesman David Keyes – who prior to coming to the PMO in 2016 worked using online platforms to promote human rights – had his fingerprints all over this video. It is one of more than half-a-dozen the prime minister has posted about Iran over the last several months. The five most-watched videos on Netanyahu’s Facebook page in 2018 all deal with Iran.
There are a number of goals in putting out these videos, Keyes said, with the primary one being: “Reach out directly to the Iranian people and show them that Israel is their friend, not – as the Iranian regime says – their enemy.”
He said the goal is to “recapture the spirit of friendship between the two peoples” that existed before the Islamic revolution in 1979, adding that the current Iranian regime is the “only barrier in what could be a wonderful and fruitful relationship.”
Keyes had difficulty hiding his satisfaction that the video annoyed the Iranian leadership and succeeded in hitting a nerve, as seen by angry reactions by top officials – from the Foreign Ministry to the ministers of energy and agriculture.
The video was widely reported on in Iranian media, and generated thousands of responses, ranging from calls for “death to Israel” and amazement that Israel would offer water assistance to Iran while people were “dying of thirst” in Gaza, to comments such as “God bless Israel” and that this is a debt “you owe us from the time of Cyrus, when we helped the Jewish people.”
The semi-official Fars news agency reported that Iranian Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian blasted Netanyahu, and said Iran does not need Israel’s help.
“The prime minister of this regime [Israel] or any other person who claims to have the ability to manage water resources is aware that Iran is among the countries whose several-thousand-year record of water management has been recognized, and we can be a source for other world regions in this regard and promote methods to cope with water shortage and optimum use of water,” he was quoted as telling reporters.
And Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi slammed Netanyahu as a “deceitful showman,” and said that before trying to save the Iranian people, Netanyahu should stop killing Palestinians.
“It is not the first time that he makes such remarks. He had better stop the massacre of the Palestinian people and the crimes which are committed every day,” he said.
These types of comments – and the degree to which the Iranian media, including the semi-official media, covered and reacted to the video – show that it hit a nerve with the regime, with Keyes saying Israel’s offer of help “undermines the regime’s whole narrative about Israel, and they are terrified exactly of that.”
Keyes said Netanyahu will continue in this manner of directly addressing the Iranian people, “twinning a strong message with the most powerful social media technologies out there today.”
BUT IS it effective?
Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in Iran, who acknowledged that he is “not identified as a Netanyahu supporter,” said the “intention is good.”
“It is praiseworthy that he is trying to make a distinction between the Iranian people and the government,” he said. “And it certainly has some influence – though it is difficult to say how much – on that part of the Iranian public, which does not identify with the Iranian regime’s obsession against Israel. So when Israel turns directly to the Iranians with positive messages, there are certainly those who see that positively.”
The problem, Zimmt says, has to do with Netanyahu himself, and the fact that he is perceived by large parts of the Iranian public as being the one responsible for the sanctions policy against Iran, which is hurting them. “Since they see Netanyahu as someone standing behind this policy [regarding sanctions] over the last few years, there is something problematic for them about his holding out offers to now help the Iranians,” Zimmt maintained.
“Part of the responses you have seen is that it is good that you [Netanyahu] are making a distinction between the Iranian people and the regime, but that your policy [regarding sanctions] is hurting the Iranian people.”
Zimmt said it is very difficult to measure the influence of these types of videos because it is difficult to know if the number of viewers, responses and talkbacks are coming from inside Iran or are posted by Iranians in exile. He said if the goals of the video are to portray the positive face of Israel and get under the skin of the Iranian regime, “I am all in favor.”
But, he added, if the goal is to try to increase the gap between the regime and the people, then that would constitute “overreaching,” and “I’m not sure it will succeed.”
Zimmt said that the current video was able to trigger a discussion in Iran and annoy the leaders because it is dealing with a very acute and sensitive problem now for Iran: water issues.
“The timing was excellent because the Iranian media is dealing with this issue. We are in the summer, and it is coming against the background of protests of farmers because of water problems,” he said. “The issue of the drought is a very timely topic.”
Zimmt said he was very much in favor of positive messages to the Iranian people – about how Israel can help – and that those messages were more effective than the ones about how the Iranians lack freedom and democracy, and hang gays from cranes.
Israel has no chance of turning the hearts and minds of those who are die-hard supporters of the Islamic regime, nor does it need to concentrate on those abroad who are strongly opposed to that regime, Zimmt said.
“You have to turn to the average citizens, and it is better do that through positive messages – where you can help them – rather than talk again about a lack of freedom or democracy. They know that the regime is corrupt. They know that the economic situation is difficult. And they know that they don’t have democracy. They don’t need the prime minister of Israel to remind them.”
Zimmt said there is no real way of measuring whether these videos succeed or have an impact. But, he added, “When it became clear that this video triggered a discussion – and it has – then that was a sign that it achieved its goal.”