Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

Netanyahu, the UN and Iran

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PM Netanyahu is meeting President Obama today ahead of his speech in the UN General Assembly tomorrow.

Israeli PMs have not always liked to come to address the General Assembly, and for good reason, as the organization has never been the recipient of popular adulation in Israel, due to the near-automatic bias of so many third world countries, mostly Muslim but not only. But Netanyahu has always liked the UN, since his tenure as Israel's Ambassador there, a position which was the launching pad of his brilliant political career. Ever the showman, the orator with perfect command of English, Netanyahu finds himself, surprisingly and disappointingly enough for him, on unfamiliar turf, that of the Israeli leader who is under pressure to equal another speaker, which was not considered a match before. This is the newly-elected President of Iran, Hassan Rohani, whose speech at the UN and his subsequent telephone discussion with President Obama seemed to have created a new reality, one in which the dictatorial Islamic regime in Tehran is basking in the glory of one speech, which is taken by many to signal a "new beginning," and now Israel, which this regime still considers as the "little satan," an illegitimate state, is required to respond in kind.

So, no more the operatic appearances of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, events which helped marginalize the Islamic regime, if not put it in complete international disrepute. It is clear that a new tone is coming out of Tehran, and obviously in this case the question is if the tone makes the music. It is too premature to pass any credible, serious judgment, and the fact that President Rohani left behind him a sense of moderation and change is a great diplomatic, but more so, a PR achievement for Iran. So, Netanyahu, the master of PR is now having to deal with another Iranian leader, and possibly another American approach. Under these circumstances, the Israeli leader is faced with a strategic, not just tactical problem.

The voices coming from the coterie of supportive commentators in Israel is somewhat mixed. Some call on him to address smiles with smiles, no damage can be done by showing an interested, though skeptical attitude. Some call upon him to present a list of Israeli expectations from any negotiations conducted between Obama and Rouhani, expectations which amount to a series of litmus tests which if met by the Iranians would be acceptable to Israel. No, the ill-fated expression "red lines" is not mentioned by these commentators, clearly in view of the chilly reception which Netanyahu received last year, with his famous "red lines" speech, which proved to be somewhat misplaced and even pathetic. Surely, "red lines" is not an expression to be used these days also by the Obama Administration, as one bitter experience proved to be one too many to this administration.

Therefore, it is to be expected, that tomorrow's speech will be less dramatic and less apocalyptic. For that to happen, the PM needs to ignore the advice of some of his sycophant media supporters in Israel and shy away from the rhetoric of yet another "Munich" which is on the horizon. Israeli leaders like, for obvious reasons, to use this kind of language, of historic metaphors, and too many do it these days again, fearing that President Obama's position on Syria and his readiness to get into a dialogue with Iran represent a revival of the Munich spirit. No, it does not, and the comparison is historically and politically wrong.

The root cause for this kind of right-wing rhetoric in Israel is deep historic suspicion towards possible diplomatic solutions with countries like Iran, a suspicion well grounded in harsh realities, but suspicions, even if understandable, cannot be the main, if not the only basis for policy. Here is a big mistake which these people are doing, and this is to turn the one Rouhani speech into an event far bigger than what it really was. It was not an historic speech, and therefore Netanyahu also is not required to give his Churchillian speech. We are not at that stage, possibly far from it.

Instead of that kind of speech, the PM should face up to the challenge presented by Rouhani and give his version of a PR performance, accompanied with as many smiles as possible, as well as constructive suggestions as to what can develop into a new situation. In short, less threats, no big drama, and desirably no ominous drawings on the billboard... That said, Israel should and clearly would maintain all the options, and not just say it, but be ready to do it. Perhaps more importantly than all, the PM has to keep the utmost level of cooperation with President Obama, so that the Iranians would not be able to celebrate any rift between Israel and the US. Some people around Netanyahu do believe that this is exactly the fundamental intention of the Rouhani smiles offensive, so no need for Israel to provide the Iranians with an easy win ...

It is an old Hebrew idiom to respect and suspect, and in the case of Iran, it is surely suspect and more suspect, but some room for change leading to respect should be kept, and doing that may seem to be the PM's greatest challenge in his speech tomorrow, as well as in his meeting today.