Ihave often said that as much as one might dislike Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, few can top him at public relations. I’d sure be glad if someone were to appoint him minister of hasbara (public diplomacy) or even foreign minister. For life. But now I’m having second thoughts, and it’s all because of a silly drawing.
Yes, that one, the one Bibi held up a couple of weeks ago on the podium at the United Nations during the opening of the current session of the General Assembly. The one he used, magic marker and all, to illustrate his red line for Iran’s drive toward a nuclear weapon.
So what’s the problem? The problem is perhaps best explained in some of the Twitter messages sent out soon after Bibi left the podium at Turtle Bay.
“I didn’t realize nuclear bombs looked like the bombs from Super Mario,” tweeted one.
“From what I can tell, Iran is seeking 1950s cartoon bombs made by Acme,” tweeted another.
“Excuse me, Prime Minister Netanyahu? Wile E. Coyote called. He wants his bomb back,” went a third.
A truly life-and-death threat to Israel had just become a caricature, as had our country’s earnest leader. It brings to mind other moments in which serious intentions went so awry as to render them tender meat for rude and even vicious ridicule. Remember Calvin Coolidge and the Indian headdress? Gerald Ford and the Shriners’ fez? Michael Dukakis in an army tank and a Mickey Mouse helmet that made him look like anything but a potential commander-in-chief? Okay, so Bibi didn’t have anything on his head. But what he held in his hand more than made up for it.
“Netanyahu has reduced nuclear war diplomacy to cartoons and markers,” said yet another tweet.
The world certainly does not revolve around Twitter. But the ubiquitous 140- character messages are a good real-time indicator of what people are thinking, proving yet again that the game is more about perceptions rather than realities on the ground.
As Jeffrey Goldberg, an ardent supporter of Israel who writes for The Atlantic, tweeted: “Okay, it’s official. Netanyahu has no idea what he’s doing. He has just turned a serious issue into a joke.”
I couldn’t agree more.
RIGHT AFTER the speech, a colleague asked me what I was griping about. After all, he stated, which issue among all those brought up during the interminable speeches by the many world leaders and diplomats would most people remember? Bibi viewed it that way, too.
“Hundreds of millions of people saw it and understand now what they perhaps did not understand beforehand – what it means to stop Iran, at what phase and what stage of its nuclearization,” he told interviewers.
I’m not so sure. Pictures speak far more loudly than words, and I wonder how many people came away thinking that if this was what the Iranians were building, maybe the whole crisis was overrated.
What’s more, Netanyahu seems to be taking full credit.
“You need to invest a lot of thought in that, and I did,” he explained. “I see that people are talking about this. They took it in the digital world and the Internet and turned it into a tool to increase and amplify discussion on the topic – and the more they are talking about this, the better it is for Israel.”
TALK GENERALLY follows the use of props in the General Assembly. It did in 1975 after another Israeli, UN ambassador Chaim Herzog, demonstrably tore up a copy of the world body’s infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution. But it also did after the foppish Muammar Gaddafi tossed aside a copy of the UN Charter during a lengthy 2009 rant about the way the West, in his view, regularly trampled it, and in 1974 after a blustering Yasser Arafat wore a holster when he delivered his famous speech about guns and olive branches.
So the question is not whether they’re talking about it, but how.
Why couldn’t Netanyahu’s prop, used to denote Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, have been more serious, more… well, business-like? It evinced a wince even from US presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“I suggested that his graphic was not up to the normal Boston Consulting Group standards,” Romney told journalists on his campaign jet after phoning the prime minister to congratulate him on the speech.
“No, I didn’t actually do that, but I was thinking about it.”
An extraordinarily candid revelation, coming as it did from a Bibi doppelganger and an old workplace acquaintance who is well aware that Netanyahu is doing everything short of going out on the stump to get him elected (although maybe this was Mitt’s way of expressing hope that our prime minister would pipe down and be a little less obvious about that).
In fact, there was conjecture that even at the United Nations, Netanyahu was campaigning for Romney, or at least against President Barack Obama, who’s clearly reluctant to set red lines. After all, some of the voice track that accompanied his showand- tell ploy seemed to come straight out of a YouTube lesson on bomb-making for survivalist drop-outs. Yes, “dumb it down,” goes the political mantra, but not to the level of a fifth-grade science class. The American voters he should be after do not fit this demographic – which makes the whole thing that much more of an enigma.
THE IRANIAN nuclear drive is a serious issue for the world. For us, it’s existential. It certainly frightens me to death. So why, after our prime minister invested “a lot of thought” in it, did his prop remind people less of something truly deadly and sinister at the tip of a missile and more of an explosive device from a Roadrunner cartoon? I half-expected him to follow it up with warnings about what could happen should Iran obtain a nuke, and then hold up another placard showing the world blowing apart and the word “BOOM!” If this is what came out of a lot of thought, I positively quake thinking about the process that will lead Netanyahu to a decision on what to do when the Iranians really do light the fuse. Let’s just hope that for the time being, those sanctions and embargoes against them cover Zippo lighters, too.