Tel Aviv — The political cartoon in the daily Haaretz newspaper depicts the United Nations Headquarters like a boisterous nightclub, where Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is getting down with Barack Obama.
With the music echoing through streets, a party crasher rushes in: it’s Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his illustration of an Iranian nuclear bomb used one year ago at the UN.
The image reflects widespread unease in Israel that the new Iranian president has succeeded with a weeklong charm offensive, while Israel stands as a lone dissenter on a diplomatic resolution over Iran’s nuclear program.
That’s more or less what happened on Tuesday. Netanyahu broke up the party of rapprochement by making the case that Rouhani represents no substantive change from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The prime minister called for keeping up the pressure — tougher sanctions and cautious negotiations that would lead to the dismantling of the entire Iranian nuclear program, calling for “distrust, dismantle, and verify.
“We all want diplomacy to succeed,” he said, “but when it comes to Iran, the greater the pressure, the greater the chance.”
And after that, he made his most explicit threat yet for military action, saying Israel will have no choice but to defend itself, a phrase that Israeli parliament member Tzachi Hanegbi — of Netanyahu’s Likud party — told Israel Channel 1 was “slang” for the military option.
Following the hardline speech, former IDF Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash said that Israel was indeed reverting to a posture in which it stood alone, leaning on its threat of an attack on Iran.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University agreed it was an explicit message: “He’s laid all the cards on the table. There was no diplomatic façade.”
Though Israel has no choice but to play “bad cop” to President Barack Obama’s more flexible posture on the terms for a nuclear deal, some experts in the days leading up to the speech said Netanyahu’s public diplomacy should evolve to reflect the changed Iranian leadership from the days of Ahmadinejad.
Some questioned the boycott of Rouhani’s speech by Israeli representatives last week and others believe that Netanyahu should try to turn the tables on Rouhani by suggesting direct talks between the countries.
“Netanyahu has to be careful not to be seen as isolated and frozen in the ability to react to the charm offensive. He doesn’t want to be painted as a refusenik,” Steinberg said a day before the speech.
“He has to use diplomacy like Rouhani does. Netanyahu has to say, we’re ready to talk to them. We’re part of the international community, too… That puts the ball back in Rouhani’s court.”
But after the speech, Steinberg said that such a challenge of direct engagement would have clashed with the prime minister’s central theme.
“Given the decision for direct confrontation, it would have diluted the message. Perhaps he felt he had to be more hard line after the Obama speech.”
The renewed efforts by the West to pursue a diplomatic deal with Iran have already revealed gaps between demands by Israel — which insists that Iran stop enriching uranium during negotiations and wants Tehran to give up its entire program — and the U.S., which seems to be ready to agree to an Iranian civilian program.
Indeed, beyond the public maneuvering, Israel has consistently argued and warned that the Iranians use diplomatic talks as a way of playing for time while they dash for the finish line on completing a nuclear weapon.
At the UN, Netanyahu quoted the new Iranian president when he was the country’s chief negotiator in which he bragged about how Iran was able to build a new nuclear enrichment facility while it was engaged in negotiations with Europe.
But an opinion piece penned by former Israeli Chief of Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, suggested that Netanyahu needs to move from a negative to a positive attitude toward negotiations. The prime minister must prepare to accept some kind of compromise that would, on the one hand, concede to allow Tehran to have a limited amount of uranium enrichment, but also improve on the status quo. Yadlin said diplomacy could work in Israel’s favor if Rouhani can’t make good on his promise of rapprochement.
“Dialogue and negotiations are important, legitimate tools,” Yadlin wrote in an article published by the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank. “A stance that takes a positive view of diplomatic solutions should be adopted, as these are always preferable to military measures.”
The challenge of countering Rouhani’s charm offensive have underlined how he is a much more formidable foe compared with Ahmadinejad, who made Israel’s public diplomacy easier.
Ahmadinejad’s threats about the destruction of Israel and his Holocaust denial helped stir sympathy for the Jewish state while isolating Iran.
Rouhani has steered clear of such remarks, embraced dialogue with the West, and even tweeted a greeting to Jews for the Jewish new year, stirring concern in Israel that the new Iranian president will use siren-like calls to lull the international community stance on Iran’s nuclear program.
“We all had an easier time, ironically, with Ahmadinejad because he was so crude and so outspoken in such a base way, that we could say that ‘these guys are nutcases,’” said a senior Israeli diplomatic official.
Alon Liel, a former Israeli foreign ministry director general, warned that portraying Rouhani as little different from his successor would be mistaken and could open up a rift with the international community. Liel said Israel needs a more nuanced response that welcomes Rouhani’s tone while pressing hard for deeds to match.