After Rouhani and Obama phone call, Netanyahu leaves the cartoon bombs at home


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures speaks during a joint press conference with his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov (not seen) in Jerusalem on September 11, 2012.



JERUSALEM — Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made sure his presence at the United Nations General Assembly would be memorable: he delivered a fiery admonition against Iran's nuclear ambitions, punctuated by the breakout moment when he flashed a cartoonish drawing of a bomb — symbolizing Iran’s nuclear program — upon which he drew with a thick red marker.

Netanyahu was widely ridiculed for the stunt, but no one has forgotten that red line.

Bibi bomb graphic

A different Netanyahu — sober, quieter — appeared at this year's UNGA. On Tuesday he delivered a strongly-worded but workmanlike address on Iran; his stark message the same as in 2012, but his tone reflecting a changed diplomatic reality.

As one Israeli journalist accompanying the prime minister said, there were "no gimmicks this time."

That’s because Netanyahu didn't need them.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu addressed at great length the charm blitz unleashed by Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, when he appeared at the assembly last week. However, the Israeli leader did not mention Friday’s phone conversation between Rouhani and President Barack Obama — the first formal contact since 1979 between the United States, Israel's top ally, and Iran, Israel's greatest nemesis.

The prime minister emerged Monday from a private Oval Office meeting with Obama, after which both men seemed satisfied, if not in complete conformity, with the other's position on Iran. 

The leaders of the closely allied nations have openly clashed in the past four years. But since each has embarked on a second term — Obama possibly emboldened by a renewed mandate, and Netanyahu likely chastened by an election that was uncomfortably close — they appear to have come to an understanding of sorts.

"I appreciate the prime minister’s views,” Obama said Monday after meeting with Netanyahu. “He is always candid."

Netanyahu too displayed a new graciousness.

“I welcome the opportunity that we're having to discuss how we work closely together to address the enormous challenges that face both of us. And … I appreciate deeply the fact that you have made clear that you remain committed to this goal [of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons],” he said of Obama.

But at the UN Netanyahu didn’t shy away from describing the Iranian threat in stark terms, returning again and again to the matter of Iran's questionable credibility.

Adopting the tone for which he’s better known, Netanyahu said Rouhani believes "he can have his yellowcake and eat it too."

Rouhani "is a wolf in sheep's clothing," Netanyahu went on, engaged in "a ruse." 

"Why would a country with vast natural energy reserves invest billions in developing nuclear energy? Why would a country intent on merely civilian nuclear programs continue to defy multiple Security Council resolutions and incur the tremendous cost of crippling sanctions on its economy? ... And why would a country with a peaceful nuclear program develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, whose sole purpose is to deliver nuclear warheads?" Netanyahu asked.

"The answer is simple. Iran is not building a peaceful nuclear program; Iran is developing nuclear weapons."

That was the crux of the Israeli leader's argument. Netanyahu implored the international community to leave sanctions against Iran in place and strengthen them at the first indication of renewed nuclear development.

"Iran’s fanaticism is not bluster. It’s real. … History has taught us that to prevent war tomorrow, we in Israel must be firm today," he said.

Khodadad Seifi, Iran’s deputy ambassador to the UN, spoke immediately after Netanyahu on Tuesday, warning that Israel should not even "think about" attacking Iran based on "unfounded accusations."

For Israelis, reassurance that the United States is not being blind sided by the new Iranian openness to the West is an indication that Jerusalem's synergy with Washington on the subject of Iran remains unaffected by the developments of recent days.

Following the meeting with Netanyahu, Obama emphasized the United States' "clear eyed" approach to the new Iranian overtures, reminding Israel of its long-standing commitment to keeping Iran free of nuclear weapons at all costs. Obama said he expects "action, not words" from the Iranians.

For the past ten years Netanyahu has spearheaded the push for sanctions against Iran, which the US eventually adopted, hoping to isolate the Islamic Republic politically and weaken it economically. This week, the White House seemed to go so far as to give Netanyahu indirect credit for what it believes is a new and serious Iranian approach, according to one senior American official, who told Israeli daily Ha'aretz that "economic collapse" caused by sanctions has brought Iran to talk with the West.

Israel's left-wing opposition leaders responded coolly to the speech, but their condemnations seemed lackluster. Labor party member Yitzhak Herzog, for example, said that though "the prime minister's speech was well-founded, it did not grapple with the changes of the past ten days." 

Zehava Gal-On, another opposition leader, said in a statement that "even though Iran's nuclear program is not being advanced for peaceful purposes, Netanyahu should have praised the Americans and the international community's efforts to dismantle Iran's nuclear armaments while sanctions are still in place and give them a chance. Instead, Netanyahu returned to his old rhetoric of threats and assaults." 

Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, dubbed the speech "seditious" and "inflammatory."