Prime Minister Netanyahu wasn’t at his worst in his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, but he wasn’t at his very best either. 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.
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The external décor only added to a sense of déjà vu garnished with a scene from the Last Picture Show. The barricades surrounding the UN complex in midtown Manhattan had been removed before Netanyahu arrived, along with most of the patrolling security and police and the unending traffic jams. The building itself looked like a ghost town, its long corridors eerily empty, the leaders and accompanying hubbub long gone, the General Assembly hall only half-full, and that’s being generous. Even the contingent of imported cheerleaders who leapt to their feet in applause at pre-arranged junctures during Netanyahu’s speech conjured flickering, old-time, black and white newsreel scenes of leaders addressing their loyal Central Committees somewhere in Eastern Europe.
But the empty seats inside the hall were also a reflection of the reality outside: there aren’t that many buyers for Netanyahu’s merchandise these days, other than loyal supporters at home and his coterie of admirers in the United States. The prime minister will likely be reminded of this in his meeting at the White House on Wednesday: U.S. President Obama will want to know whether he has anything constructive to contribute to the Iran debate, other than the unrealistic demand to dismantle Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure altogether. And if not Hamas and not Mahmoud Abbas, Obama will want to know, then who? The Quislingesque Village Councils that Israel tried to promote as an alternative to the PLO in the 1970s?
Likewise, other than the Jewish organizations that were quick to praise Netanyahu for “speaking truth to power” on Monday, there are really only a few takers for his equation of Hamas and Islamic State, because hardly anyone can accept that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its 47-year-old occupation, exists on the same planet as the nihilistic rampage of sadistic jihadists in Iraq and Syria. On the contrary: Netanyahu’s insistence on repeatedly drawing parallels between Hamas and ISIS, between ISIS and Nazis, between Nazis and Iran - despite his curious failure to make note of the September 29 anniversary of the 1938 Munich Agreement – all seem to be part of some never-ending hasbara gimmickry that has assumed a life of its own.
Such a suspicion was more than amply confirmed by the contrived analogy that Netanyahu made between evil Iran and the retiring Yankee demi-God Derek Jeter, of all people. (“To say that Iran doesn’t practice terrorism is like saying Derek Jeter never played shortstop for the New York Yankees.”) It all sounds like some harebrained back-to-the-wall slogan thought up by a worn out copywriter who has run out of ideas.
Most of Netanyahu’s messaging seemed slightly recycled, like a warmed over version of Bibi’s Greatest Hits: The blurry picture of Palestinian children playing near Hamas rocket launchers in Gaza that was a sorry substitute for the 2012 blockbuster cartoon of an Iranian bomb; the factually-challenged comparison of the distance between the UN building on the East Side and Times Square to that between Gaza and the suburbs of Tel Aviv, which is a ploy that Netanyahu himself used when he was ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s; his overly self-righteous defense of the great care that the Israel Defense Forces takes to avoid civilian casualties which bordered on a complaint that the Palestinians weren’t making enough of an effort to thank their lucky stars for the privilege of being blown to bits by IDF bombs.
Netanyahu rightfully rejected the abhorrent charges of genocide made by Abbas in his harsh UN speech on Friday. Nonetheless, even here Netanyahu’s arsenal seemed a bit rusty: He dredged up a list of Abbas’ well-known crimes and misdemeanors, including his controversial Holocaust denial in the 1970s as well as a more recent statement that a future Palestine should be free of Jews. But from this short list of Abbas’ alleged crimes in the past one could deduce some of his achievements in the present, lauded only recently even in Israel itself: his unequivocal condemnation of the Holocaust, his effective battle against terrorism and the relative stability that he maintained among Palestinians in the West Bank even as the srael Defense Forces was – very carefully and very morally – turning Gaza into heaps of rubble.
Netanyahu’s onslaught was curiously complemented by his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who convened his own mini-press conference in the UN building a few hours earlier in which he said that Abbas was “divorced from reality” and no partner for peace. Lieberman may have been trying to steal some of Netanyahu’s thunder in preemptive retaliation for the prime minister’s own brazen appropriation of Lieberman’s first-make-peace-with-moderate-Arab-countries proposal. But Lieberman can probably rest easy: the idea is likely to elicit the same reaction on the world stage – complete disregard – even when it comes from the prime minister himself.
Then again, perhaps it doesn’t matter. Israeli analysts claimed from the outset that Netanyahu would be addressing his audience in Israel rather than his international listeners. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that anyone but Netanyahu's most devoted disciples will be completely satisfied with his re-run performance on Monday: his fans may be loyal, but they have nonetheless come to expect a spot of spectacle, a dash of drama, a morsel of novelty that they’ve never seen before that will turn them on. It’s probably no coincidence that it took a few hours for one website that had posted a transcript of Netanyahu’s speech to realize that it was the one he delivered at the UN back in 2011.