Trying to Understand Netanyahu

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Benjamin Netanyahu's speech today before the U.N. General Assembly was many things. It seemed to be a concession speech (no attack until at least the spring). Unless, of course, it was a bluff designed to make us think that there will be no attack (in other words, a reverse bluff). The only reason I suspect that this could be true is that no sane prime minister would order Israel's Air Force to attack Iran at a moment Iran is expecting such an attack, unless of course Israel has developed a means of completely neutralizing Iranian air defenses. Remember that the previous two Israeli attempts at nonproliferation-by-force -- in Iraq and Syria -- were preceded by zero public discussion, and certainly not by cartoons.

The speech also showed that Netanyahu might not know how to draw -- it appears he may have placed his red line in the wrong place on his now-famous Wile E. Coyote ACME bomb cartoon.  (UPDATE: The cartoon red line, it turns out, has been misinterpreted.) It also showed him to be a condescending person (I've heard from several people in the hall -- including a couple of people, rare for the UN, who don't hate Israel, who felt that the bomb drawing was Netanyahu's way of saying, "Look at this, you idiots.") Mainly, what the speech might be about is Netanyahu's upcoming reelection campaign. This from Yossi Verter:

Thursday's speech also had political ramifications that presumably were not lost on the speaker: If, at the start of the Knesset's winter session in around two weeks, Netanyahu calls for early elections (probably in February ) it's clear that the election campaign will be centered on the Iranian threat. In an election campaign that has a security-diplomatic, even existential character, less experienced politicians or political wannabes like Labor's Shelly Yacimovich and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, who are pushing a socio-economic agenda, will find themselves in terra incognita, with little to sell the public.

The Wile E. Coyote cartoon makes sense in this context: Netanyahu was playing almost entirely to a domestic audience. His soothing words about the U.S. were obviously meant to calm down the White House, which has reached the point where it is getting infuriated -- inappropriately, I think -- over idiotic tweets from low-level Israeli government officials. But the audience was Israel. Israelis certainly don't mind a prime minister who condescends to the U.N., an organization that regularly scapegoats their country.

Herb Keinon, writing in The Jerusalem Post, has a much more benign view of the cartoon stunt than I do:

Netanyahu broke no new ground in his speech to the UN on Thursday. In fact some of what he said, for instance the clash between modernity and a medieval frame of mind, he said in 2009 in the very same UN hall.

And Netanyahu probably didn't convince any minds sitting in the hall.

But he did ensure that a picture of him drawing a red line on a sketch board illustration of a bomb will be on the front page of numerous newspapers Friday morning. And that was the prime minister's goal at the UN: to make clear to the international public what he means when he says a red line.  The best way to do that is to lug a sketch board, a graphic, and a squeaky red marker into the UN to literally illustrate a point.

The illustration - and the image of the prime minster with his pen - will remain in the mind far after what he actually said is forgotten. And that is one way to sear an idea into peoples' minds.

For what it's worth, I think Herb is kidding himself if he thinks Bibi seared anything useful into people's minds. What he did was take a deadly serious issue and turn it into a cartoon. People may remember his speech, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

Oh, and by the way: If I were in charge of the Iranian nuclear program, I would spend the next six months accelerating the movement of all of my centrifuges to the underground Fordow nuclear facility.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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