Fixing Netanyahu’s Bombside Manner


Countenance counts

The elusive but paramount concept of bedside manner has been discussed in the practice of medicine for a long time. Bedside manner transcends the technical quality of the care the patient receives; it transcends competence and results too. The elusive qualities of bedside manner directly affect the patient’s whole being, from the patient’s outlook to the patient’s willingness to abide by the recommended course of treatment. What does the patient want—the truth told in a cold, clinical manner, or a charming and reassuring dose of reality? Most would choose the latter.

This is Netanyahu’s dilemma now that he has to confront Rouhani’s new Iranian diplomatic offensive. The Iranians are nothing short of ecstatic. Their embrace of Rouhani’s comment that he has accomplished more in 50 days than “could be done in 500 days” shows their pride in the new Iranian face of diplomacy. This was the platform Rouhani won the election on: the reintegration of Iran into the world. The respect and willingness to listen and engage Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly contrasted with the walkouts ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provoked when he took the same podium.

As of now, Rouhani and his team have offered nothing concrete except a new face for new talks based on vague assurances that the Iranian nuclear program is only for “peaceful purposes.” However, this was overshadowed by President Obama’s telephone call to Rouhani in late September—ushering in a diplomatic “hotline” of sorts—that marked the first time in 30 years that Iranian and American presidents have spoken over the phone.

Then Netanyahu arrived to throw cold water on the whole Iranian effort. Playing the Cassandra role, he publicly admonished the President and other world leaders not to fall for the easy words and broad smiles of his turbaned enemy. He tried to undo the Iranian outreach to America.

Obama’s White House meeting with Netanyahu seemed forced and tense. Afterwards, Obama once again issued his “no options off the table, including military options” speech. This outraged Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who immediately reaffirmed his (and many Iranian officials’) belief that the Obama administration is under the control of “international Zionists.”

I have my own ideas about how to conduct these talks. But I think it is equally important to note that the Israeli Prime Minister is getting terrible PR advice from his staff. Diplomacy requires a bedside manner that makes the patient comfortable with the recommended treatment. Netanyahu did not do that with Obama. He did not help the President. Instead, he made Obama look foolish in the eyes of America and the world. Netanyahu’s position is basically that Obama is naive and can be fooled by Iran’s new diplomacy.

The appropriate course of action would have been for Israel to applaud Rouhani’s new charm offensive, to praise it for what it could deliver: a nuclear deal that took the Iranians at their word—that they do not want a bomb and only desire nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

I do not believe that for a second, but calling them liars and frauds does not stop Iran from producing a nuclear bomb. It would be better for Obama and Netanyahu to welcome the new talks and try to bring the Iranians into the disarmament tent, without giving up one point of Obama’s current policy. Continue to tighten the sanctions that are destroying Iran’s economy. Continue to sabotage and hamper Iran’s nuclear program in covert ways. Load up all the bunker buster bombs in America’s arsenal, and make sure the Iranians know about it. Keep the military “games” over the Straight of Hormuz at a high level. But do so with the same smiles and charm that Rouhani so effectively demonstrated.

The Western world, and specifically America, is tired—and broke—from two futile wars in Muslim countries. The pathetic results in Afghanistan and Iraq speak for themselves. Americans, Europeans and the emerging world beyond want economic progress, not more war. They at the very least want to make sure their leaders don’t have biases for war that preclude compromises to achieve peace. Netanyahu does not fit that wish. His scornful and alarmist manner is tone deaf to America’s needs. He says he is forced to “tell the truth” and uses silly analogies about sheep and wolves. That is a dangerous role for Netanyahu to play.

Let me make this clear once again. I am not advocating any compromise with Iran. They must not be allowed to make a nuclear bomb. However, if they do build a nuclear weapon and America and/or Israel needs to use force stop them, the back-story should be that we tried everything. We were open and accepting, engaging and hopeful, yet the Iranians refused to live up to their word and lied. Now they are threatening the world with a bomb they said they said they did not need or want.

I hate to see the Iranians act in a more clever fashion than the Israelis. I hate to see Netanyahu pushed into the corner, his demeanor dour when contrasted with a smiling Rouhani. As for effectiveness, remember that no one listened to Cassandra; the gift horse was wheeled inside the city gates, the deception worked, and Troy was destroyed. Perhaps if Cassandra used humor, engagement and smarter diplomacy the oft-told fable would have ended differently. Let’s hope Netanyahu can learn from history and change his bedside manner so that his crucial message can be better heard.


About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.