David Chinitz

Words matter

Eitan Cabel, a Labor Party (I still have trouble referring to the maladroitly named “Zionist Camp”) politician, responded to Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress to the following effect: “No doubt Netanyahu is a great orator, but speeches don’t stop Iran, and they don’t solve our social problems.” This was repeated by many Israeli pundits and politicians. Daily Show comedian Jon Stuart dismissed the speech and the ovations received by Netanyahu with an off color reference to a sexual act, implying that the Congress was swallowing demagogic, grandstanding rhetoric.

It is a sad statement that Netanyahu is considered a great orator. If it weren’t for his American style English, this probably wouldn’t be the case. But the real reason is that the Israeli political landscape has produced no “I have a dream”, “Day of Infamy” or “Ask not what your country can do for you” speeches. Maybe it derives from the “who do you think you are?” Jewish mentality that hearkens back to the first time Moses encountered a fellow Jew, who said exactly that to him. Israelis don’t hold much by oratory or even classy writing, as the editorial page of our best newspaper, Haaretz, demonstrates daily. It’s considered pompous to give a great speech.

As I wrote here recently, I’m not voting for Netanyahu out of a simple political intuition that it is time for change. The man has been head of the Likud for 22 years, and Prime Minister for nine, the last six in succession. Enough already! That’s another missing piece of our political landscape: knowing how to bow out gracefully (did I say Shimon Peres?)

But my electoral preferences don’t preclude stating that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was far more than good.  It was as important as setting new budget priorities , regulating public services, and making the army more efficient. Sometimes words are the key.

In this case, it’s the words that Netanyahu has demanded that Israel’s adversaries and negotiating partners say. In one sense it was pathetic when in his 2009 Bar Ilan speech, Netanyahu articulated a non-negotiable demand that the Palestinians recognize   Israel as the “Jewish State.”  It reeked of the insecurity we Jewish Israelis feel that is rooted in our failure to compete demographically with the Palestinians, by getting all  the armchair Diaspora Zionists to become Israeli citizens. Indeed, the word Zionism matters, as it has been used to obfuscate aliya, which was its only essential meaning.

But  that sorry dimension aside, what rings out like a bell is the response to Netanyahu’s “call for words.”   The Palestinians are simply unable to pay with words in exchange for progress towards their ostensible goal of statehood. Recently, Zev Sternhall, a regular leftist Haaretz pundit who has gone as far as to say that Israel is on the brink of becoming a fascist state, wrote that if he were a Palestinian, he would have given those words to Netanyahu, because they are essentially meaningless.  Sternhall also said that if he were a Palestinian he would abdicate the demand for return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, because everyone knows that’s not going to happen. Guess what? it turns out that the problem is that the Palestinians are not  Zev Sternhalls!

And now Netanyahu has indicated that his opposition to the Iranian nuclear negotiations could be on the table given three conditions : “ stop sponsoring terrorism, stop gobbling up neighboring countries and interfering in their affairs, and stop threatening to annihilate Israel.”  Barack Obama dismissed the speech as offering nothing new, and John Kerry claimed that it offered no alternatives to the deal currently being negotiated. But, as  Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, those reactions are inaccurate because Bibi’s triple was new, especially the part about having Iran utter the words: “Israel has a right to exist.” Maybe Obama didn’t get it because so often his rhetoric, as in the use of the word “change”,  so badly disrespects the importance of words . Netanyahu, as in his Bar Ilan speech, had once again played a bold, perhaps even dangerous, gambit focused on declarations. What if the Iranians actually would say that they have no desire for Israel to be annihilated? What would Bibi do then? Would he actually soften his opposition to Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for words? Why wouldn’t the Iranians take that offer? It can only be because calling for the destruction of Israel is wired into their hard disk. With all the pressures the Iranian regime faces internally and internationally, the hatred of Israel and desire for its extinction is both a matter of belief and pragmatism for the Ayatollahs.

So words matter – those that are said, and maybe even more so those that aren’t. When Ayatollah Khameini says, as did Anwar Sadat, “no more war, no more bloodshed,” then we will have something to talk about. Till then, when invited to repeat what Netanyahu said to the US congress, he or whoever replaces him should happily accept the invitation, regardless of political niceties and the reactions of world leaders, and trendy comedians like Jon Stuart, who don’t understand that sometimes words are as important as actions.

About the Author
David Chinitz is Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Braun School of Public Health, Hebrew University-Hadassah