Powerful oratory is not only about accent, diction and delivery; rather, it is mostly about word choice and cadence, about structure and content. The best place to demonstrate these well-known truisms is at the annual gathering of world leaders: the General Assembly of the United Nations. There are no better examples today than Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister speaks Bibish; the President of the United States speaks English.
Both Netanyahu and Obama have built their political careers on their rhetorical proficiency and on their uncanny ability to use words to move audiences. Both men have honed their skills in multiple settings throughout the world. Together with their innate gifts, their cosmopolitan background has endowed them with the tools needed to lead their own societies and to argue their cases before the most august global forums. Their recent addresses in New York, however, underline the immense gap not only in their styles and in their messages, but significantly, in the values they convey.
The interventions of the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel were directed, as post-speech analyses correctly stress, as much to their domestic audiences as to the global community — albeit for very different reasons. The president spoke barely six weeks before the forthcoming elections scheduled for November 8; the prime minister appeared in the midst of yet another wave of violence and economic unrest at home. But Barack Obama’s lengthy farewell soliloquy before the General Assembly was a thoughtful, erudite, forceful display of a sophisticated vision wrapped in elegant prose. He was as respectful of the standing of his audience as he was sensitive to their concerns. His language was embracing; his tone inclusive.
Netanyahu’s presentation, in many respects, was a study in contrast. His English was sprinkled with words which may speak to some audiences, but raise eyebrows in a gathering of world leaders. From keeping scorecards on UN behavior (“Israel — 20; rest of the world — 3”) and verbal displays of American slang hardly fitting for this group (“Yep, you guessed it; “Wow”; “is he kidding?”; “I hear the buzz”; “throw the book at them [Hamas]’; to repeated admonitions to “see” what is going on through his eyes), his talk was sprinkled with colloquialisms. It seems that the prime minister was more eager to appeal to those outside the glass building on 42nd street — where his Americanisms may act as a cover for linguistic sloppiness — than to the representatives sitting in front of him. His constantly chastising tone, once again accompanied by a purposefully confrontational style, may have defied his effort to garner support for change in this most important of international forums.
Indeed, the structure of the two speeches could not have been more different. Obama’s centered decidedly on the key challenges facing the global community: it was universal in scope and comprehensive in content. Netanyahu’s address was first and foremost inwardly-oriented: it dealt with Israel facing the world — and especially the Palestinians. Obama sought to lay out a common agenda; Netanyahu to distinguish between the victims (especially Israel) and the aggressors (extremist Islam). The president’s presentation was therefore systematically problem-oriented, if somewhat pontifical. The prime minister’s was primarily accusatory — when not pointedly self-congratulatory. If Obama’s speech was designed to set a joint plan of action for the years ahead, Netanyahu’s was constructed to drive a wedge between different forces and outlooks while defending his own course. Nothing underlines better their differences than these particular mindsets they brought to the podium.
The substantive message the two leaders conveyed reflects these distinctive worldviews. Barack Obama surveyed at length some of the major issues facing many states today — from poverty and terrorism to refugees and global warming. He set out four major challenges for the global community: promoting equitable economic growth; enhancing governance; combating fundamentalism; and increasing inter-state cooperation. In each of these areas he outlined achievements, pinpointed setbacks and suggested alternatives for every corner of the world — including the United States.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s ostensible call for peace was wrapped in a contradictory package. His opening claim that “Israel has a bright future in UN” did not jibe with his unfettered assault on the institution and its agencies; nor did his effort to highlight improvements in Israel’s standing in Africa and among certain Arab states sit well with his unbridled attack on the Palestinian leaders and their cause. His insistence on the need for a two-state solution (shared by much of his sparse audience) could not, however, be easily reconciled with many of his actions in recent years; his efforts to denounce Palestinian behavior did not necessarily validate recent Israeli conduct. That is why he left his audience with an oxymoronic message: only if you accept Israel and rally around its mission will you be able to overcome your past transgressions and move forward.
Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu — along with most people throughout the globe — share a common hope for a better future. In their addresses before the United Nations, however, they underlined very divergent reasons for this sentiment. Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed the connection between the quest for progress and support for Israel. “The future belongs to those who innovate and this is why the future belongs to countries like Israel. Israel wants to be your partner in seizing the future.” For him, joining this vision will secure Israel and the world: “Cooperate with Israel, embrace Israel, dream with Israel. Dream of the future that we can build together, a future of breathtaking progress, a future of security, prosperity and peace, a future of hope for all humanity, where even at the UN, even in this hall, Israel will finally, inevitably, take its rightful place among the nations”.
President Obama’s vision was ensconced in liberal values. “I have learned that our identities do not have to be defined by putting someone else down but can be enhanced by lifting somebody else up. They don’t have to be defined in opposition to others, but rather by a belief in liberty and equality and justice and fairness.” He then went on to show how this conviction dovetails with his allegiance to his country: “My belief that these ideals apply everywhere doesn’t lessen my commitment to help those who look like me, or pray as I do, or pledge allegiance to my flag. But my faith in those principles does force me to expand my moral imagination and to recognize that I can best serve my own people, I can best look after my own daughters, by making sure that my actions seek what is right for all people and all children, and your daughters and your sons.”
Speeches, then, especially before the United Nations General Assembly, are not merely performances; they are also a window into the minds and souls of leaders and the societies they represent. Beyond the delivery and the semantics, the showmanship and the verbal versatility, they reflect deep-seated beliefs. Would that in the message emanating from this world plenum, more attention be paid to the words of those who speak a universal humane language — in whatever tongue.