If you happened to catch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations—believe me, this isn’t the last you’ll be hearing about it—then you were treated to quite a show. Actually, given the muted quality of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech yesterday, Netanyahu is an early favorite to have stolen the General Assembly’s thunder.
What will be forgotten from Netanyahu’s speech is the stinging rebuke he opened with, in response to Ahmadinejad’s comments earlier in the week that Israel has “no roots” in the Middle East. What will also be overshadowed is the response Netanyahu offered to the disappointing speech delivered by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas only minutes before, a feckless, visionless recitation by Abbas of half-truths and inflammatory charges that will do nothing to advance peace.
What you will hear about and most likely see splashed across front pages of newspapers around the world is the image of Prime Minister Netanyahu holding up a diagram of a cartoon bomb with a lit fuse. The diagram is so supposed to detail Iran’s progress in building an atomic weapon that could conceivably be used to murder millions of Israelis.
While this horrific idea was germinating behind a viewer’s eyes, Netanyahu pulled out a red sharpie and drew a broad red line to the exact point on the neck of the bomb that represents where Iran must be stopped in order to prevent its nuclear capability. Using IAEA intelligence estimates, Netanyahu predicted that, unless stopped, this benchmark will be achieved by Iran in the spring or early summer of 2013.
There seem to be two reactions floating around about the use of this prop. The first is that Netanyahu has made a mockery of the issue of Iran’s nuclear capability by presenting such a crude cartoon to drive home a point about an existential threat. The other response has been that this was an effective use of a prop to manage a message that may resonate in the days to come.
Well, was it primitive or simple? Reductive or clear? For what it’s worth, I’m too troubled by the content of the message to actually decide. There was something inherently surreal about watching a man of Netanyahu’s eloquence and intelligence (and yes, power) perform such a bizarre act of political performance art.
It was also the clearest Netanyahu has ever been about what “red line” he means to draw with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. In that it made me extremely anxious, I’d say it was effective. The question is whether anyone will take it seriously or not.