Benjamin Netanyahu’s breathless presentation on Monday about Iran’s nuclear program didn’t reveal anything particularly surprising about Iran’s nuclear program. Using a batch of stolen Iranian documents that detailed the program, the Israeli prime minister purportedly proved that Tehran pursued a nuclear-weapons program before 2003, and has been lying about it ever since. Which is what most experts already assumed. Even Fox News anchor Brit Hume acknowledged that the “Netanyahu revelations, it seems, make clear Iran has repeatedly lied about its nuclear intentions, but do not establish violations of the Iran nuclear deal.” That’s right. They did not establish any violations because—according to 10 International Atomic Energy Agency reports, along with Trump’s own defense secretary and State Department—Iran (unlike the United States) is complying with the deal.
The real significance of Netanyahu’s presentation has nothing to do with Iran. It has to do with Donald Trump. For more than a year now, Washington politicos and world leaders have been conducting a vast experiment in child psychology: How do you sway an American president who has the attention span, self-discipline, and self-awareness, of a child? Two primary strategies have emerged.
The dominant strategy among world leaders has been gaudy flattery. Foreign governments have exploited Trump’s tendency to conflate the way they treat him with the way they treat the United States. Vox’s Zeeshan Aleem offered some examples. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given Trump a $4,000-golden golf club, insisted that Trump’s golf game is far superior to his own, and presented the president with a hat festooned with the words (in gold thread, of course): Donald & Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater. Xi Jinping, the president of China, made Trump the first U.S. president to dine in the Forbidden City. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has appealed to Trump’s love of military pageantry by making him a guest of honor at Bastille Day. In Riyadh, the Saudis projected Trump’s face onto the side of a hotel.
Washington politicos, however, can’t dazzle Trump with exotic splendor. Instead, many have pursued a different strategy: Appearances on television. Trump, The Washington Post noted, has been “hiring people who’ve been auditioning on television.” From John Bolton to Larry Kudlow to Anthony Scaramucci, Time observed, Trump “Keeps Hiring Cable TV Pundits.” Saying things on cable news that Trump likes to hear has become a proven path to a job in his administration. It’s also become a good way of influencing policy, since Trump often recycles ideas he hears on Fox.
Which brings us to Netanyahu’s presentation. It’s the first example of a foreign leader using television to sway Trump in the way American politicians and pundits do. Most foreign leaders lack the linguistic and cultural fluency to speak to Trump like a Fox News contributor does. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has been preparing for that role his entire adult life.
Netanyahu’s political career is as much a product of television as Trump’s. In 1982, at the age of 33, he arrived in Washington as the Israeli embassy’s political attaché. American journalists were challenging Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Then, as now, America was led by a president who didn’t read much. So Netanyahu, blessed with the fluent English he learned as a high-school student outside Philadelphia, made himself a TV star. In their 1998 book, Netanyahu: The Road to Power, Israeli journalists Ben Caspit and Ilan Kfir write that Netanyahu often rented television cameras and a television spotlight, turning his living room into a makeshift studio. Netanyahu’s then-wife, Fleur, “was the interviewer and Bibi had to reply … Afterward, they would run through the tapes and analyze how Bibi responded.” Since his boss, the Israeli ambassador, preferred to work behind the scenes, Netanyahu quickly became Israel’s face in the United States. He grew friendly with Larry King, Charlie Rose, and Ted Koppel, in particular, on whose show he appeared so frequently that, according to Vanity Fair, “wags began referring to ‘Ted Netanyahu’ and ‘Bibi Koppel.’” When Netanyahu moved to New York to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, he sought out a speech consultant named Lilyan Wilder, who often critiqued his performances on Nightline with Koppel.
In the late 1980s, Netanyahu returned to Israel and became deputy foreign minister. He was given the task of going on American television to defend Israel’s response to the first intifada. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Netanyahu became an even bigger star. While Saddam Hussein was striking Israel with SCUD missiles, Netanyahu appeared on CNN wearing a gas mask. As one article put it, he became “for all intents and purposes, the Cable News Network’s bureau chief in Jerusalem.” The Washington Times suggested he be awarded an Emmy.
Netanyahu’s prominence on American television only grew more frequent after he was elected Israel’s prime minister in 1996. But in his first stint in the job, and after returning to it in 2009, he served opposite Democratic presidents in Washington who distrusted him and disagreed with his uber-hawkish views on the Palestinians and Iran. So Netanyahu often used his television appearances to rouse Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s Republican opponents, and to sway the American people.
Now it’s different. In Trump, Netanyahu faces a U.S. president who is more personally and ideologically sympathetic to him than his predecessors, knows far less, and is addicted to television. Like other foreign leaders, Netanyahu has wielded flattery to win Trump over. After Trump addressed the UN last September, Netanyahu tweeted that, “In over 30 years in my experience with the UN, I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.” But, unlike them, he has also figured out how to appeal to Trump via television.
Consider his remarks on Monday, which were perfectly tailored for Trump. Although speaking from Tel Aviv, Netanyahu delivered his presentation mostly in English. He appealed to Trump’s appetite for drama with phrases like, “[t]onight we’re going to show you something that the world has never seen before.” He used simple, macho, Trumpian language: “Iran lied. Big time.” He employed props, at one point theatrically pulling off black curtains to reveal the binders and files Israel had stolen. (Perhaps Netanyahu knew that Trump, as an aide recently told The New Yorker, is “a visual person” who likes to have arguments made “pictorially.”) He bashed Obama: “This is a terrible deal. It should never have been concluded.” And he ended by making Trump the star of the show. “In a few days’ time, President Trump will decide, will make a decision on what to do with the nuclear deal. I’m sure he’ll do the right thing,” he said.
From Netanyahu’s perspective, doing the right thing means scrapping the Iran deal. His presentation didn’t actually make the case for doing that. As a chorus of experts have noted, Netanyahu merely showed that Iran pursued a nuclear weapon before 2003, and subsequently lied about it. He offered no evidence that it is still pursuing one, or is cheating on the 2015 nuclear agreement. But Netanyahu understood his audience: A president bored by policy details, surrounded by advisors like John Bolton, who have long argued for abandoning the deal.
Sure enough, Trump responded that Netanyahu’s revelations “showed that I’ve been 100 percent right” in calling the nuclear agreement the “worst deal” ever signed. That’s false. Netanyahu’s evidence didn’t undermine the Iran deal at all. But Trump, in all likelihood, wasn’t following Netanyahu’s evidence. He was watching the show.
Netanyahu has long yearned to be not only the leader of the Jewish people, but the leader of “The West,” like his idol, Winston Churchill. Under Barack Obama, he was in opposition, like Churchill during the wilderness years. Now, in Trump, Netanyahu has an ally who is sympathetic to his worldview but incapable of coherently articulating it. Which allows Netanyahu to play the role he’s long dreamed of—spokesman for the Judeo-Christian world in its battle with “radical Islam.”
On Monday, Netanyahu didn’t just use television to sway Donald Trump. He used it to act like the historical figure he’s always wanted to be.
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