Obama Call to Netanyahu: Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Bat? Gloves On or Off?

For weeks, the news was filled with stories on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-awaited speech to the US Congress, and then came the election campaign and reaction to his surprise “crushing victory.”

“Drink cyanide, you bloody Neanderthals. You won”. . . One can only imagine what the extreme right was thinking

The left was shocked, then furious. “Drink cyanide, you bloody Neanderthals. You won,” award-winning author Alona Kimhi said on Facebook, “before,” Haaretz  reported, “the public outrage caused her to delete her post.”

One can only imagine what the extreme right was thinking: “Given the threat from ISIS and Hamas, conditions are just not right for a Palestinian state. Nearly fifty years of occupation are really not much in the grand scheme of things. After all, Jews lived for two thousand years as a subjugated minority. The Palestinians need to learn patience.”

‘We can forgive Bibi for … killing the peace process’ but not for ‘forcing us to endure an endless stream of preachy opinion pieces by Peter Beinart’

Reactions from “Middle Israel” ranged from stoic irony to frustration. “Well, at least now I‘ve got a use for that old vinyl recording of “Ha’olam Kulo Negdeinu,” one wag quipped. Said another, “We can forgive Bibi for the high price of pudding and housing. We can forgive him for killing our sons and the sons of the Palestinians. We can forgive him for killing the peace process, alienating our most important ally, and bringing about our total international isolation and pariah status. But we cannot forgive him for now forcing us to endure an endless stream of preachy opinion pieces by Peter Beinart in Haaretz.

But of course, as soon as one crisis is over, journalism needs another. For days—well, 2 or 3—speculation raged: When would Obama call Bibi to congratulate him? Would he even bother to call? As right-wingers lost no time in pointing out, he has congratulated such authoritarian leaders as Erdoğan, Sisi, Rouhani, and Putin. When the phone call finally came, vague reports indicated only that the President’s comments echoed administration public remarks, which have been unusually harsh on subjects ranging from settlements to UN resolutions.

Still, the speculation is only just beginning. What did the two men actually say? Why can’t they “put personal differences aside” and “act like adults” so as to “fix the damage” to relations? The Times of Israel used a file photo for its story of the phone call because the White House issued none. Was there a reason?

TOI Obama_phone_file

It is not the first time that a call between the President and a foreign leader has engendered controversy, and on at least one occasion, a photograph was the cause. Three years ago, the White House provoked a minor international incident when it for some inexplicable reason showed Mr. Obama holding a baseball bat, autographed by the great Hank Aaron, while speaking on the phone with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Obama Bat Daily News

Turkish commentators were mystified and outraged. One opposition leader said “The photo reveals from whom our Prime Minister receives orders to rule the country,” and another called it “an implicit insult to Turkey and its citizens.” The White House pleaded, “We released the photo with only one purpose in mind, to highlight the President’s continuing close relationship with Prime Minister Erdogan and draw attention to the important conversation they had about the worsening situation in Syria.”

Well, fast-forward to 2015. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become Turkish President and Ahmet Davutoğlu is the new Prime Minister, but aside from that, only the numbers have changed:  over 200,000 dead, 1.5 million injured, and nearly 4 million refugees.

Imagine that the photo with the bat had been taken this year. Let us allow our fantasy to wander . . .

The White House hastened to undo the damage. Generally respected White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest (who replaced the unlamented Jay Carney—widely regarded as a humorless and arrogant Obama loyalist reluctant to give reporters access to the President) assured the press corps:

The President was pictured holding a baseball bat, and baseball is our national pastime. But as you know, the President is also a college basketball fan and in fact just filled out his bracket, as he does every year. Clearly, then, the President does not favor any one sport over another. If there is anything our history has taught is, it is that even the smallest form of discrimination can lead to great evil.

Certainly, by posing with the emblem of our national pastime, the President did not intend to demean any other American sport or the sports of any other people. In order to make that crystal clear, he will in the future attempt to pose with sports equipment from around the world. I can assure you, you will see him with volleyballs, shuttlecocks, basketballs, squash rackets . . .

Admittedly, we cannot satisfy the particular culture of every country. Obviously, it would be impractical for the President to try to hold a headless goat carcass while speaking with President Ashraf Ghani, who recently visited, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t respect the great game of Buzkashi, or the great Afghan people, who are making steady progress toward self-government and democracy.

But anything else is fair game. If the President can hold it, he will, and you will be there to see it and share that with the American people. Well, actually, given our new press policies—despite what that malcontent Julie Mason says, there’s really nothing wrong with them—you won’t see it, but you’ll see the pictures that we decide to let you see.

The next time President Obama speaks to President Rouhani about nuclear weapons, don’t be surprised if you see him holding a pair of meels.


In fact, the Iranian national sport offers a perfect analogy to the nuclear talks, which are now approaching their successful conclusion. According to Wikipedia (from which this administration gets most of its knowledge of foreign affairs and cultures) the pahlevani and zoorkhaneh rituals are “a traditional Iranian system of athletics originally used to train warriors,” which “combines martial arts, calisthenics, strength training and music.” Now, this President has made it clear he will not permit Iran to train warriors, so we will ensure it uses these rituals only for legitimate calisthenics, strength training, and music.

Responding to a question, Earnest denied persistent rumors that Obama was photographed wearing boxing gloves while on speakerphone with Netanyahu:

I am simply not going to go into detail about what sporting gear the President was playing with while speaking with the Prime Minister. Despite our differences, the relationship between Israel and the United States is a special one and it is unshakeable—unbreakable. As the Prime Minister said, “America and Israel are . . . like a family. We’re practically mishpucha.” Indeed, the President views the Prime Minister as the sort of obsessive crazy uncle who lectures you throughout the Thanksgiving dinner or Passover seder.

But I don’t mean to restrict this to holidays of just one national or faith tradition, so let me assure you: There is no one with whom the President would rather celebrate Festivus, “the festival for the rest of us.”

As you know, its main rituals are: “airing of grievances” and “feats of strength.”

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About the Author
Jim Wald is a professor at Hampshire College, where he teaches modern European cultural history, including the history of antisemitism and fascism, and the history of the book.
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