Benjamin Netanyahu and Ban Ki-moon AP 8.11.2010
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, greeting Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations, Nov. 8, 2010. Photo by AP
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NEW YORK – “Nobody wants peace more than Israel, but what is going on here is not an attempt to build a state – but to destroy one.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu might very well employ this potent line in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly today, though he’s used it before. 33 years ago, to be exact. It is one of the arguments made by “Economic Consultant” Ben Nitay, as he was known then, in a popular and viral video on YouTube and on the Internet that shows a young and intense Netanyahu debating renowned Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami and displaying the raw rhetorical skills that would eventually catapult him to the very top of Israeli politics.

Six years after the video was shot, Netanyahu was already Israeli Ambassador to the UN, the darling of the media and the new American idol of the Jewish community, a worthy heir to the legendary Eban, as he was then often described. Hardly a day went without a newspaper article portraying Netanyahu as “handsome” or “dashing” or employing the adjectives “stirring” or “powerful” to describe his way with words. Together with his polished second wife, Fleur, the Netanyahus in the Reagan-era mid-80’s were the toast of the town, the monarchs of Manhattan, the envy of the city’s diplomats and emissaries.

Perhaps it should have come as no surprise, then, that Netanyahu decided to personally represent Israel in his much anticipated debating duel against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the General Assembly today. Netanyahu may have assessed that Israel was not about to suffer the humiliating defeat that many were predicting, and he probably had advance notice of the almost embarrassingly pro-Israeli speech that President Obama was about to deliver; but may also very well be that he could not withstand the lure of returning to the scene of his prime, to his own personal “Glory Days” that Springsteen sang about, before they passed him by.

After all, for Netanyahu, nothing much has changed: the “Evil Empire” is still out there, though its capital has moved from Moscow to Tehran; the “automatic majority” still wields its dictatorial rule over the UN and other international institutions; the Palestinians are still the main instrument of Israel’s unraveling, the avant-garde of global efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state; and the UN podium is still a powerful pulpit from which to preach to the converted and to strengthen their support and resolve while scoring valuable political points both home and abroad. As could be clearly seen once again in the oaths of devotion uttered at the candidates’ debate in Florida last night, it is the seeds of love that Netanyahu sowed in the fledgling neoconservative movement of the early 1980’s that have now blossomed into the Republican Party’s almost unprecedented infatuation with the current prime minister.

Of course, there are those who maintain that Netanyahu’s message is out of touch and out of time and that “his rhetoric, like his presence, fits the 1980s better than today” as Gershom Gorenberg wrote yesterday. And that although the dour Mahmoud Abbas is no match for the smooth talking Netanyahu in terms of oratory, for most of the world – though not for most Israelis – it is the Palestinian president who speaks for the underdog, and not vice versa. Netanyahu’s eloquence, the critics maintain, will not suffice to clarify Israel’s total opposition to recognition of a Palestinian state that its prime minister ostensibly supports, or to explain why in close to three years at the helm he has not found the way to engage a Palestinian leader who has adopted the only precondition that Israel ever had for peace talks: the renunciation of violence and the willingness to settle disputes by diplomatic means.

And then there are those killjoys who never appreciated Netanyahu’s oratorical mannerisms anyway, who profess to have grown tired of what the Israeli press often describes as the prime minister’s grandiloquent “shticks and tricks”, or, worst of all, who maintain that those glory days that everyone is talking about were, as the song puts it, ones “he ain’t never had”.

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