The 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York is sure to be remembered for the moment Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went Carrot Top. For in using a childish stage prop in his address to literally draw a red line for Iran, Netanyahu played the part of a buffoon. But even as those watching were left to ponder whether Netanyahu’s aim was to induce fear or ridicule, the prime minister’s performance still managed to fulfill three key objectives.
Firstly, Netanyahu’s cartoon gambit served to eclipse the speech given earlier in the day by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The charges by Abbas of Israeli “ethnic cleansing” and a “racist” takeover of Palestine are thus sure to fall on deaf ears. Bibi’s clowning trumps apartheid.
Secondly, Netanyahu’s theatrics functioned to obscure the incoherence of his entire red line campaign. For instance, in initially addressing Iran on Thursday, Netanyahu warned that Islamic Republic is dangerously crazy. And thus, unlike with the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union, containment and deterrence are not feasible policies when it comes to Iran. As the prime minister argued:
Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival.
But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get nuclear weapons.
There’s a great scholar of the Middle East, Professor Bernard Lewis, who put it best. He said that for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.
But soon after using the orientalist Lewis to deem Iran an irrational actor, Netanyahu went on to demand establishing a firm red line for Tehran because doing so would force it to halt what the prime minister insists—without merit—is a nefarious nuclear program.
“I believe that faced with a clear red line,” Netanyahu argued, “Iran will back down.”
But if the Iranians are indeed irrational actors, why would they employ any sort of cost-benefit analysis when faced with a red line threat? If they truly don’t care about their self-preservation, why would they be moved by any threats from Israel or the U.S.?
Netanyahu obviously has no answers because he knows that the Iranian government, contrary to his claims, is indeed a rational actor. After all, everyone from chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak have acknowledged as much. But with his cartooning gimmick sure to monopolize the media’s attention, Netanyahu managed to mask—yet again—the disjointed nature of his entire red line campaign.
Thirdly, Netanyahu’s flamboyant stagecraft likely pushes the issue of Iran front and center in the U.S. presidential election. Doubtless, each candidate will be asked to demarcate precisely where on Netanyahu’s absurd little diagram they would draw the red line for Iran. And for a man who has repeatedly sought to boost the electoral chances of his old pal Romney, any opportunity to potentially make Obama appear weak is not to be missed. In fact, one can imagine Netanyahu staring alongside his U.N. speech prop in Republican television commercials in the near future.
And to think, all Netanyahu had to do Thursday was play a fool. But let us not forget, for a man who has been shamelessly arguing that Iran is on the precipice of a nuclear weapon for well over a decade, the role of a buffoon is nothing particularly new for Bibi.