To 'Bibi' or Not to 'Bibi'

American politicians almost exclusively refer to the Israeli prime minister by his first name. They gain points, but is diplomacy diminished?

(Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

When the subject of Iran's nuclear program came up during last night's vice presidential debate, Joe Biden began talking about his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Biden likes to play up his long-standing connections with foreign leaders, so mentioning Netanyahu by name was not in itself surprising. The odd part is that Biden never referred to Netanyahu in any way but "Bibi," which is Netanyahu's often-used nickname.

While Netanyahu is referred to as Bibi in a number of settings (in line with Israelis' proclivity toward nicknames, especially in the military), Biden's use of his friend's nickname stood out in a formal political debate. Even more noticeable is that Biden initially referred to "Bibi" without even providing his last name or his position as prime minister of Israel. It is impossible to imagine this happening with any other world leader, but Biden did it repeatedly and with ease when it came to Netanyahu.

It is easy to chalk this up to Biden's generally informal nature, or his desire to create a contrast between his own decades of foreign policy experience and Ryan's relative dearth of foreign policy chops. Yet even if Biden did so unintentionally, there are some lessons to be learned from the vice president's colloquialism about Netanyahu and the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Biden's use of "Bibi" is a reminder of just how long Netanyahu has been on the world stage, and more importantly how ubiquitous his presence in the U.S. has been during this period. Netanyahu has addressed Congress in his capacity as prime minister, testified before congressional committees as a private citizen, been a regular guest on American political talk shows, and made excellent use of his fluent and barely-accented English to give accessible interviews to U.S. media outlets. In short, Netanyahu is probably the world leader to whom Americans are most exposed.

This means that both American politicians and average Americans have a real sense of familiarity with Netanyahu, and in some cases may feel as if they know him intimately. Biden felt that he could refer to the Israeli prime minister by his informal nickname without any introduction or context on national television without having to worry that Americans watching at home would be confused about whom he was talking about. As soon as Biden referred to Bibi, everyone knew that the conversation had now switched to Israel. Netanyahu's constant presence in the U.S. and exposure to Americans gives him a degree of credibility with the public here by virtue of familiarity that other world leaders do not have, and that is a powerful tool that Netanyahu is able to wield.

But this familiarity is a double-edged sword. Biden and other politicians can casually refer to Bibi and it indicates a sense of comfort with the man, but it also signals that Netanyahu is not always taken seriously or at face value. Netanyahu has been warning that an Iranian bomb is imminent since the early 1990s, and there are many at this point who tune out his dire language given how long he has been using it. In September 2002, Netanyahu testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that "there's no question" that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear program, adding, "If anyone makes an opposite assumption or cannot draw the lines connecting the dots, that is simply not an objective assessment of what has happened. Saddam is hell-bent on achieving atomic bombs, atomic capabilities, as soon as he can." As it turned out, Netanyahu's assessment was not exactly on the mark, and this episode added to the sense that his rhetoric does not always line up with the facts.

The infamous cartoon bomb at the United Nations General Assembly last month reinforced this notion that Netanyahu can be derided or mocked with ease. The infantilizing nickname that so many use when talking about him plays into the general idea that Netanyahu's warnings can be ignored or shunted aside, and that we have known him to play a certain character for so long that things he say should be taken with a grain of salt.

Finally, Biden's word choice says something larger about the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship. In constantly referring to his friend "Bibi," Biden framed Israeli concerns over Iran almost entirely around Netanyahu - how close a relationship Biden has with the prime minister, how many times President Obama has met with or spoken with him. Doing so risks reducing the entire relationship with Israel to a personal one between Netanyahu and U.S. leaders, rather than the shared interests of both countries in countering a nuclear Iran.

Furthermore, Biden also conflated Israel's interests as they relate to Iran directly with Netanyahu's position on the issue - conflating the prime minister with the entire Israeli security and defense establishment. Unlike the president of the United States, the prime minister of Israel has many more constraints on his national security decision-making. Yet in his casual references to Netanyahu, Biden gave off the distinct impression that U.S. decisions on Iran are impacted by Netanyahu alone when it comes to taking Israeli views into account.

This is the wrong way to approach things, as Ehud Barak, Netanyahu's security cabinet, and the IDF leadership all have their own views on military action against Iran, and their opinion not only carries weight but has the ability to be decisive. Making everything about Netanyahu runs the risk of creating ill-informed policies and a less rigorous understanding of what Israel may or may not do when it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

Biden was probably not thinking about any of these things when he started talking about his old friend and fellow world leader. But as Biden himself noted during the debate, in reference to his own choice of words in the past, often it is in the unconscious moments that we learn the truth about political realities.