Death of a Salesman?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always prided himself on being a gifted salesman, one able to market the problematic Israeli product to both sympathetic and hostile audiences. Like most gifted salesman, the Prime Minister has even developed a routine consisting of catch phrases like “if it looks like a duck, if it walks like duck, if it quacks like a duck, then what is it?” and easy to comprehend diagrams such as the cardboard cutout of a nuclear bomb he held during his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

However, like another famous salesman, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Netanyahu often suffers from vivid flashbacks acting as if we were still living in the previous decade, a decade in which America was willing to commit resources to military campaigns in the Middle East and Europe reluctantly tolerated construction in Israeli settlements.

This past November, as European, American and Iranian leaders took to the stage in Geneva for an historic photo-op, Netanyahu’s wartime rhetoric seemed out of pace with the world. When world leaders spoke of compromise, he spoke of appeasement; when the world spoke of mutual understanding Netanyahu spoke of mutual assured destruction and as the world looked to the future Netanyahu remained fixed on history.

The gifted salesman delivered a 2001 sales pitch to a 2013 crowd.

But times have changed. The US and Europe have accepted that fact that Iran will become a nuclear threshold state. No charismatic speeches, amusing diagrams or carefully worded Tweets will change that. The world has also had enough of Israeli construction in the future State of Palestine, and no hollow promises to make historic compromises will change that.

When a salesman has lost touch with the times, he soon finds himself out of touch with his audience and no longer able to sell his product. Such is the case with Benjamin Netanyahu who like Miller’s protagonist now finds himself relying on his children. The first, former athlete Biff, is currently portrayed by the husky Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who is tasked with selling Israel to Eastern Europe and Russia.

The second child, Happy, portrayed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livney who is happy as long as she gets to play peacemaker, is charged with placating European audiences by promising immediate progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians. The Europeans don’t trust Mr. Netanyahu and don’t abide by Comrade Lieberman. Thus Mrs. Livney has become the Prime Minister’s liaison to all things European. Such was the case when Livney was charged with reaching an agreement with the EU regarding Israel’s participation in the multinational Horizon 2020 scientific research program.

Two weeks ago, Netanyahu seemed to experience a brief moment of clarity. When addressing the Saban Forum, the Prime Minister made two important remarks. The first, stating that the negotiations with the Palestinians would prove futile if Iran were to reach nuclear capability. Until now, the Prime Minister has been adamant in his refusal to link between the Iranian issue and the Palestinian one. Secondly, in his address Netanyahu adopted a softer tone on Iran reiterating more than once that he shares President Obama’s hope that the Iranian nuclear program will be dealt with by diplomacy rather than by military force.

It is unclear whether these statements represent a change in policy or simply a change in language. Perhaps Netanyahu is willing to make true progress with the Palestinians in return for a tougher stance towards Iran by the International community. It is also possible that the Prime Minister wishes to introduce his own terms for a peace accord with the Palestinians before the US introduces its own peace plan forcing him to make concessions he is not willing to make.

Or maybe it is all a matter of phrasing. Maybe Netanyahu understands that audiences are no longer buying into his old polices and doctrines and that his sales pitch must be digitally re-mastered for new audiences. What is certain is that if Netanyahu wishes to remain Israel’s official salesman, he must find ways to reconnect with the audiences he once knew so well. What is also certain is that unlike Willy Loman, the Prime Minister believes that his years as a gifted salesman are far from over.

About the Author
Dr. Ilan Manor (PhD Oxford University) is a diplomacy scholar at Tel Aviv University. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at
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