My Word: For crying out loud - Arms control and self-control

The build-up to Netanyahu’s speech was so intense that it knocked other items off the news agenda, some of them more important than others.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
I had a Dilbert moment earlier this week.
I’m a fan of the cartoon character by Scott Adams who is recognizable to anyone who has ever worked in an office environment somewhere in the developed world. A present from my brother, I have a Dilbert calendar on my office desk and look at the cartoon strip of the day while my computer starts up in the morning.
Sundays are always hardest. The calendar combines Saturdays and Sundays, a painful reminder that although Israelis can enjoy Shabbat in a way it can’t be experienced elsewhere, this country lacks a weekend, with a leisurely Sunday.
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On Monday, March 2, when I was steeped in work concerning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the joint session of Congress the following day – I sat down at my desk and turned a new leaf on my calendar. It showed the socially inept Wally telling Asok, the easily freaked-out intern: “Rogue nations are building nuclear weapons.
The polar ice caps are melting. Unemployment is high. Entire nations are on the brink of default. You aren’t saving enough for retirement.”
“What do you have going here?” asks Dilbert, as a bright red Asok breaks out in a sweat and struggles to loosen his collar.
“He said he doesn’t pay attention to news,” replies Wally. “I wondered why.”
The build-up to Netanyahu’s speech was so intense that it knocked other items off the news agenda, some of them more important than others.
Since the world needs light relief, there was a great deal of discussion on the social media last weekend about the BuzzFeed story on whether a certain dress was white and gold or black and blue. The story had nearly 22 million views within 24 hours and spawned a lot of psychological and scientific features on how the same image could be perceived so differently.
Netanyahu’s speech was like the dress – people saw, or heard, what they wanted to, based on pre-existing factors.
I felt sorry for the prime minister. Anyone who has had to give a talk in public – or even a work presentation in a Dilbert-like environment – knows it’s natural to be nervous.
I met Netanyahu in his office on the eve a visit to the US a couple of years ago at a time when relations between him and President Barack Obama were already tense. He looked uncomfortable and an aide confided that he was suffering from backache, which I assumed was either caused or worsened by tension and would not be made easier by a long flight and media scrutiny.
This trip, with headlines describing his Congress address as “the speech of his life,” and his relationship with Obama ruined rather than strained, it’s a credit to Netanyahu’s oratorical prowess that he managed to get through the event with just a few sips of water at the lectern.
I was disappointed but not surprised that the leaders of the opposition chose not to unite behind the visit and instead turned it into a political event, all the while decrying its politicization. Even if the timing of the speech was determined by the March 17 elections, as Netanyahu’s rivals claim, and not by the talks between the powers and Iran ahead of the initial March 24 deadline, the contents were not political. And I have heard Netanyahu warning of Iran’s nuclear plans since I was a parliamentary reporter in the mid-1990s.
The threat, as he has constantly noted, is not to Israel alone, but to Israel first – as with all other forms of Islamist terrorism.
The sight of US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Switzerland for talks on Iran’s nuclear program while Netanyahu was in Washington was not reassuring. The famous smile of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani grew wider as the gap between the Israeli and American leaders grew ever bigger. With every perceived wedge, Rouhani smiled more broadly and flexed his muscles.
Iran is still planning to host the Second Annual Holocaust Cartoons Contest next month. No Dilbert-like characters decrying life in the modern workplace here. The $12,000 first prize will go to the caricaturist judged best at conveying the message of Holocaust deniers. (I bet there will be plenty of distorted images of Jews but not one image of Muhammad.) THE RHETORIC of Netanyahu’s detractors before and after the speech was almost as interesting as what the prime minister had to say.
First came the warnings that if he divulged any information that could be considered classified there would be hell to pay. Netanyahu clearly believes that there will be hell on earth if Iran is allowed to become a nuclear power; nonetheless, he was careful not to give details beyond what could be found courtesy of the World Wide Web. “While the final deal has not yet been signed, certain elements of any potential deal are now a matter of public record,” he told the packed House. “You don’t need intelligence agencies and secret information to know this. You can Google it.”
When Obama responded by saying there was nothing new in Netanyahu’s speech I couldn’t help but wonder why – and, why, if the president was going to be so dismissive about it, did he go to so much effort to prevent the address taking place? Many of Netanyahu’s deriders were able at least to compliment his speaking skills, so I wasn’t surprised to see a headline that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had been moved to “near tears.” Reading on, however, I discovered that Pelosi was nearly crying because she was so “saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
Well, for crying out loud, Pelosi! “This deal won’t be a farewell to arms. It would be a farewell to arms control,” warned Netanyahu in his perfect English.
“And the Middle East would soon be crisscrossed by nuclear tripwires. A region where small skirmishes can trigger big wars would turn into a nuclear tinderbox.”
There was other pertinent advice, too: “You see, inspectors document violations; they don’t stop them” and “Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America.”
There was something surrealistic about the event and the hype, particularly as it came against the backdrop of Purim, the festival when, as Netanyahu pointed out, we read in the Book of Esther “of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies.”
No wonder satire programs had lots of fun with the best show in Washington. (I don’t know how the prime minister kept a straight face as he declared: “My long-time friend, John Kerry, secretary of state, confirmed last week that Iran could legitimately possess that massive centrifuge capacity when the deal expires.” With friends like Kerry, Netanyahu does not need political enemies.) Israel’s extremely popular Gav Ha’uma (the reincarnation of the State of the Nation satire show), quipped, for example, that the reason Netanyahu went to the Kotel before his trip was to practice talking to a wall.
As one commentator put it, Obama seems to be “waging a firmer war against Bibi than he is against Islamic State.”
Watching Islamic State jihadists destroying 3,000-year-old statues last week trying to erase any evidence of ancient Assyrian culture, it’s easy to see where the Islamic Republic of Iran could be heading.
Unexpected support for Netanyahu came from the editor-in-chief of Saudi-backed Al-Arabiya’s English website. In an article titled “President Obama, listen to Netanyahu on Iran,” Faisal J. Abbas recalled Netanyahu’s farewell speech to IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz last month and wrote: “The Israeli PM managed to hit the nail right on the head when he said that Middle Eastern countries are collapsing and that ‘terror organizations, mostly backed by Iran, are filling in the vacuum.’” This week it was reported that Saudi Arabia has reached its own nuclear deal with South Korea, clearly concerned by both the Iranian threat and the rampaging jihadists.
Unfortunately, I fear Obama heeding Netanyahu is not much likelier than my coming to work and finding a month of Sundays on my calendar – and every one of them a day off from working with depressing news.
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