Yesterday, the UN General Assembly heard the voice of a man struggling to make himself sound relevant. Binyamin Netanyahu's speech, in the words of Haaretz writer Barak Ravid, was "a tour de force of déjà vu" or, as Chemi Shalev wrote:
"His delivery was impeccable, as usual, but the content seemed faded and sometimes stale and if you want to be polite you can call it: a speech in retro. The tricks seemed passé, the shticks worn out and even the headlines that Netanyahu supplied appeared to come from another era: Peace with Arab countries first? Abbas as Holocaust denier? Welcome to the twentieth century, vintage 1970s or thereabouts."
But it was worse than that. It's not very smart to complain, as Netanyahu did, about those who "compare Israel to the Nazis" while at the same time likening Islamism to Nazism.
It's not very smart to accuse others of "outrageous lies" while playing fast and loose with the facts about Gaza and flatly denying the fact of occupation.
It's not very smart, and also potentially offensive to Jews in the diaspora, for the prime minister of Israel to claim that he acts on behalf of "the Jewish people".
But it is utterly silly to equate Hamas in Gaza with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Egyptian regime says the same about the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, but no matter how much they huff and puff these are not claims that the world is ever going to take seriously. All that Netanyahu achieved by that was to provoke a sarcastic rebuff from the US State Department.
This raises the question of who Netanyahu thought his target audience was. Clearly not the General Assembly itself, because many of the seats were empty. The gallery above was a different matter, as Barak Ravid noted:
"In the upper balcony, however, he also saw his donors and patrons from the US Jewish community, who had come, as every year, to cheer him from the stands. They included Ron Lauder, Malcolm Hoenlein and, naturally, Sheldon Adelson.
"Together with Netanyahu's armada of advisers, they rose and applauded every time they detected a need to boost morale – when Netanyahu mentioned Iran, when he declared that the IDF was the most moral army in the world, and when he attacked the organisation under whose logo he was speaking."
Possibly the speech wasn't actually intended to persuade anybody. On Twitter, Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer suggested it had done what it was meant to do: "shore up his right-wing base in Israel and the US" – though possibly his characterisation of Israel as a gay paradise didn't help in that. Paul Danahar of the BBC, noting that Netanyahu had made a joke about baseball (which hardly anyone outside the US would understand) thought he was trying to appeal to the sort of Americans who watch Fox News and CNN.
There does seem to be an element of circling the wagons here. As I argued in a blog post during the recent Gaza conflict, Israel's hasbara practitioners seem to have given up on trying to sway the uncommitted and are now more interested in preventing defections from their existing fan club.
One important question raised by the speech is: what does Netanyahu actually want? Does he even know what he wants? His main point seemed to be that Hamas is as bad as ISIS and Iran is worse than both of them – but where is that supposed to lead? "Of all the rhetoric against Iran's nuclear programme in Netanyahu's speech it was notably devoid of any hinting of attack threats or red lines," security analyst Daniel Nisman commented on Twitter.
According to Anshel Pfeffer, however, the "real substance" of Netanyahu's speech was where he said ties with Arab countries should come before peace with the Palestinians. In this context, he specifically mentioned Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Egypt and Jordan which already have peace treaties with Israel.
While this might be dismissed as a delaying tactic where peace with the Palestinians is concerned, there may be more to it than that. Last March, the New York Times reported on a meeting in Jerusalem where "security cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbours in the Persian Gulf" was discussed. An article for Israel National News explored this further, talking about proposals for a Nato-like body called the Middle East Alliance Treaty Organisation (MEATO) which would include Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece.
The New York Times report explained:
"That idea, basically unthinkable a few years ago, could be more plausible now because of widespread worry over Iran’s nuclear programme, coupled with chaos in Syria and turmoil in Egypt. Even though Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries have long viewed Israel as the Arab world’s biggest adversary, the rise of threats they all share in common is creating a new urgency to find common ground, the officials said ...
"Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates share comparable views on the rise and fall of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They all were far more comfortable with the government of President Hosni Mubarak, and were dismayed at what they viewed as an abandonment of Mr Mubarak by the United States in the face of the initial Tahrir Square uprising.
"The Saudis encouraged the Egyptian military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power last year, and the subsequent crackdown on its supporters, despite American diplomatic efforts to avert both moves. Israel, for its part, is satisfied to have the Egyptian military back at the country’s helm."
This raises the interesting prospect that the security of eight million Israelis in "the one true democracy" of the Middle East (as Netanyahu puts it) could hinge on eighty million Egyptians continuing to live under military rule and the survival of an absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia which has done more to spread Islamist ideas around the region than any other country.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 30 September 2014