Some Israeli politicians make history at the Herzliya Conference, the country’s premier politics and security gathering. In 2003, for instance, prime minister Ariel Sharon told the world for the first time about his plan to disengage from Gaza.
On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have also made history, in a sense — by delivering what was arguably his weakest speech in years, if not one of the weakest of his career: lackluster, meandering, repetitive, at times banal. Perhaps worst of all for a politician, it was uninspiring.
Prime ministers give many speeches and can’t be expected to reinvent the wheel every time they take the podium. But while Netanyahu’s one-hour filibuster was characteristic in that the content offered very little in the way of dramatic news, it was strikingly atypical for a usually brilliant rhetorician. Remember his speech to Congress in March? Supportive or not of his decision to lobby in DC against the president, his address was resonant, fluent, well-argued, mesmerizing.
Apparently speaking without a written text, on Tuesday evening he seemed tired and under prepared. He packaged his policy positions in largely familiar sound bites, and lacked his usual oratorical punch in delivering them.
Netanyahu started off by quoting Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who had just told him that he considers Israel a “global digital powerhouse,” and dwelt for several minutes on Israel’s high-tech prowess. After praising himself for a currency reform he initiated in the 1990s, he then waxed over his close personal friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, taking particular pride in a Hebrew tweet with which Modi had congratulated him on his election victory.
Israel is the “land of milk and honey… and gas,” Netanyahu then wisecracked, referring to the country’s natural gas reserves, and getting little more than a few polite chuckles. “We have received a great gift from nature. The gas must be extracted from the sea and brought to the Israeli economy.” Okay. Whatever.
After about 20 minutes, he finally reached his favorite topics: the dangers of radical Islam, and especially, of course, the Iranian nuclear threat, the Islamic State, and Palestinian recalcitrance. But even here, he seemed strangely distant.
Switching curiously from Hebrew to English and back, his underwhelming address even on these issues stood in stark contrast to the powerful talk former prime minister Ehud Barak had delivered right before him. Barak called for a construction freeze outside the settlement blocs and for a regional agreement with Israel’s Arab neighbors. Real leaders don’t shy away from bold steps toward peace, even if they involve grave risks, Barak thundered, with such force that some pundits began to wonder whether he was considering a comeback.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, reiterated his familiar readiness in principle for a two-state solution but in the same breath explained why that wouldn’t happen any time soon. He called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to negotiations without preconditions, but then noted that Abbas surely wouldn’t. “Why should he talk? He can get by without talking,” said the prime minister sardonically. “He can get by with an international community that blames Israel for not having talks.”
About 15 minutes and several topics later, he swung back to the peace process, vaguely. “The solution that I propose requires laborious, serious, deep negotiations. And even then we’ll have to buttress it with other safeguards.”
What about Iran? The Islamic Republic is more dangerous than the Islamic State, he asserted unsurprisingly, and it’s better not to imagine what would happen if the regime had nuclear weapons.
Displaying some self-awareness, Netanyahu acknowledged that he’s “often portrayed as the nuclear party pooper,” but said somebody needs to say what needs to be said. And so he said it, again and again.
Another point the prime minister made repeatedly on Tuesday evening was his hope for enhanced cooperation with Israel’s Arab neighbors. Indeed, he acknowledged publicly what he has been saying in private conversations for some time now: that he converses regularly with the heads of Sunni states in the region.
“I speak with quite a few of our neighbors, more than you think,” he said, but without going into specifics. Their fear of a nuclear Iran and of IS “creates a change and a potential for cooperation, perhaps even to resolve the problem that we want to resolve with the Palestinians.”
There might be an opening for peace, since “some of the Arab states silently agree with what I say,” he vouchsafed, but again without providing any details.
“They might be in a position to influence the Palestinians to adopt a more conciliatory and positive approach,” he suggested. “It’ll be hard, because all politics is theater, and international politics is also theater, and everyone is cast in a role.”
Cast in a role? If so, on Tuesday night, in the concluding address of the Herzliya conference, Netanyahu sounded unusually disengaged from his.