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Netanyahu’s best, and worst, moments at the podium

In advance of his Congress address, a look at the rhetorical master’s props, past and present

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

From ducks to cartoon bombs to devastating blueprints, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is to address both houses of Congress on Tuesday, has used his share of props and turns of phrase to advance his case against Iran. Here are some of the more memorable examples:

After decrying the “systematic assault on the truth” of the Holocaust in 2009 as advanced by Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu produced the Nazi blueprints of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, signed by Heinrich Himmler, and  rhetorically demanded: “Is this too a lie?… Have you no shame? Have you no decency?… Perhaps some of you think that this man and his odious regime threaten only the Jews. You’re wrong.”

Instead, he said, the “cold-blooded impartiality” of Islamist violence seeks to return all of “humanity to medieval times.”

The hand-drawn plans for the death camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau were handed over to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin on August 27, 2009, and used as a prop several weeks later in the prime minister's address to the UN General Assembly. (photo credit: AP/ Rainer Jensen, Pool)
The hand-drawn plans for the death camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau were handed over to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin on August 27, 2009, and used as a prop several weeks later in the prime minister’s address to the UN General Assembly. (photo credit: AP/ Rainer Jensen, Pool)

The “nuclear duck” speech, one of his most memorable, was made from Netanyahu’s coziest pulpit: AIPAC. In March 2012 he mocked the notion that “a country that builds underground nuclear facilities, develops intercontinental ballistic missiles, manufactures thousands of centrifuges, and absorbs crippling sanctions, is doing all that in order to advance… medical research.” And then said: “Ladies and gentlemen, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then what is it? That’s right, it’s a duck. But this duck is a nuclear duck. And it’s time the world started calling a duck a duck.”

The speech prompted this video remix:

In September of that year, the famous Bibi Bomb speech saw the prime minister produce a cartoon-like diagram of a bomb and a wick. “This is a bomb; this is a fuse,” he told the UN General Assembly.

Explaining that the bomb itself was split into three stages of readiness, and that a red line had to be drawn in order to stop Iran’s advancement straight through to the third stage, he produced a red marker and said, “The red line should be drawn right here… Before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it’s a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sets out his 'red line' for Iran on a cartoon bomb drawing during a September 27 speech to the General Assembly (photo credit: Avi Ohayun, GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sets out his ‘red line’ for Iran on a cartoon bomb drawing during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 27, 2012 (photo credit: Avi Ohayun, GPO)

In March 2012, during a meeting with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Netanyahu gave the US president a scroll of the Book of Esther – a 2,500-year-old story, that may or may not have happened, which describes the backroom maneuvering that allowed Jews to escape the ethnic cleansing plotted by a nefarious Persian named Haman. Netanyahu’s aides told the Forward at the time that the scroll was intended as “background reading.”

Netanyahu with a scroll of the Book of Esther on March 10, 2009 in Jerusalem's Great Synagogue (photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash 90)
Netanyahu with a scroll of the Book of Esther on March 10, 2009, in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue (photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash 90)

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg summarized the message of the megillah: “The prime minister of Israel is many things,” he wrote, “but subtle is not one of them. The message of Purim is: When the Jews see a murderous conspiracy forming against them, they will act to disrupt the plot. A further refinement of the message is: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt the plot, even if Barack Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.”

Less impressively, there was the forced “[Hassan] Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too” at the 2013 UN General Assembly; the “every moo is computerized” comment at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos; and, a personal favorite, the May 2005 smoldering cigar.

Serving as finance minister, and very much under the gun for his trickle-down economic doctrine, Netanyahu bumped into a group of journalists after a cabinet meeting. Not wanting to be portrayed as the fat cat minister stripping the poor of state assistance, he took his still-burning cigar, wrapped it in a paper papkin, and stuffed it into the pocket of his blazer.

After a few seconds of talk about the outgoing IDF chief of staff and an upcoming prisoner exchange, Israel Radio correspondent Shmuel Tal asked what was burning, and Netanyahu, realizing the gig was up, pulled the smoldering cigar out of his blazer. Isaac Herzog, today his rival and the head of the Zionist Union party, did the opposite of what he would do today: he quickly stepped on it and extinguished it. But the rhetorical flourish, in this case, belonged to Netanyahu’s then-spokesman, MK Ofir Akunis: “The minister is well, the blazer is well, and the matter only proves that the minister is a hot finance minister,” he said, “who knows how to function under fire.”

Netanyahu, during his first term in office, enjoying a cigar on September 28, 1997 (photo credit: AP Photo/ Zoom 77)
Netanyahu, during his first term in office, enjoying a cigar on September 28, 1997 (photo credit: AP Photo/ Zoom 77)

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