Benjamin Netanyahu is at it again, waving props around to prove that Israel is under threat from Iran. This time it was the wreckage of an Iranian drone, wafted above his head at the Munich Security Conference. The Israeli Prime Minister carried on about the threat that we all understand is real. As such, we should have one message for Mr Netanyahu: change the tune, and drop the props.
The problem is not just that the international community is already acutely aware of the threat to Israel from Iran, but also Netanyahu putting that threat above the genocide in Burma, the Ukraine crisis, the Syrian civil war, the war in Yemen, or even the more than a decade-long gang war in Mexico, which in 2017 alone saw 23,000 civilians killed.
Netanyahu’s antics in recent years suggest that he is aware that the Israeli cause is waning in the face of wider global events, hence his increasingly desperate theatrics.
The history books haven’t yet reflected that famous moment when George W Bush lifted a shard of the Twin Towers before hushed delegates at the United Nations, because it never happened. We missed the moment that Tony Blair took a part of a burning bus from the July 2005 bombings, and threw it on the floor of a Council of Europe meeting hall, again because it did not happen. When a tsunami hit the coast of Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan did not pit man against radioactivity, grab some nuclear waste and bathe himself in it on live television just to prove a point; it simply did not happen.
When communicated by true statesmen, tragic news – or details of major threats – do not need theatrics, exaggeration or anything else. Good leaders take the gravity of the situation and translate it into relevant language. Competent leaders are able to set the tone of the nation just by speaking, deftly calming a nation’s nerves or legitimising military violence against another. The great leaders know that only the most urgent situations demand fear-mongering.
Speeches which need props rarely go well. They are the rhetorical equivalent of that lesson in creative writing where they tell you solemnly that if you need to use an exclamation mark to convey drama at the end of your sentence, you had better re-write it.
Look at what extreme right-wing Australian Senator Pauline Hanson did in August last year, for example. Arriving at a Parliamentary session wearing a burqa, she argued that she was representing the genuine fear of her constituents with regards to Muslim women. She was duly lampooned with little restraint, and the stunt backfired ingloriously.
Iran today poses a threat to Israel, for sure. It is a brutal marshal of anti-Zionist sentiment, amongst Muslims of all stripes; it abuses anti-Semitism as an instrument of soft power, whipping up anti-Jewish hatred. When Hamas came cap-in-hand to the Sunni Gulf states, most turned the militants away, but Tehran did not. Hence, it is Iranian-made rockets which are pointing at southern Israel, and the people operating them have been trained by Iranians. When Israeli intelligence officers spot Iranian handlers in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip, or see Hezbollah commanders working hand-in-glove with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Syria, they aren’t hallucinating. The aggression of Iran towards Israel is not in doubt. The real question is how much, in a world whose future peace looks increasingly precarious, should we be worrying about Iranian aggression against Israel above all else?
Netanyahu’s antics in recent years suggest that he is aware that the Israeli cause is waning in the face of wider global events, hence his increasingly desperate theatrics. This week he used the downed drone. In front of the UN in 2012, he produced a cartoon-like bomb diagram before the bewildered ambassadors of member states; he wanted to demonstrate Iran’s progress towards developing a nuclear weapon. Again, there was some misdirection; the so-called Arab Spring had also just called into question whether Israel was going to remain the only democracy in the Middle East.
The Israeli leader is a great manipulator of truths and lover of podiums, and he has not done too badly as a politician. However, he has altered the direction of Israel profoundly, tilting it towards possible social if not existential doom. He has stacked the odds against Israel becoming a beautiful societal, legal and geopolitical statement of benevolence to those whose land it occupied, and has instead attacked the media, sought to flush out foreign aid organisations and demonised whistle-blowers from state institutions as dangerous traitors. Despite his earlier economic successes, his ultimate legacy will be a new, much-polarised Israel, which has at its heart an immutable animosity towards Palestinians.
Even as a two-state solution disappears in the rear view mirror, it is easy to see that the question now will be whether the international community prefers a constant Northern Ireland-style conflict in the already volatile Middle East, or a state which is triumphantly Jewish for an instant, before being just as instantly wracked by ethno-religious civil war. Or would maintaining the status quo, a faux tug-of-war between illegal settlers and weak-minded right-wing governments in Tel Aviv, which the settlers are winning, be more preferable?
At the helm of the world’s only self-declared Jewish state, Israel’s leaders not only speak for a nation, but also claim to speak on behalf of all Jews everywhere. Netanyahu thus has a responsibility to history not to let the reputation of the Jewish people go down with Israel’s. His puerile stunts at world events need to stop. He should listen carefully: real statesmen don’t need props, Mr Netanyahu; they really don’t.