Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is known for his stirring and defiant rhetoric. His speeches generally pull no punches, sounding the alarm about dangers that the West would rather ignore. His best utterances (at the joint session of Congress, for example) are eloquent and defiant.
But these are challenging times for the prime minister, to put it mildly. Egyptians have attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Hamas terrorists recently murdered civilians in southern Israel. The Palestinians’ United Nations gambit may trigger another intifada. Turkey has become unhinged over its failure to label Israel a international outlaw. And, let’s face it, never has a U.S. president caused an Israel prime minister such tsoris.
In reaction to recent events — the attack on Israel’s embassy, the temper tantrum by the Turks in the wake of the U.N.’s flotilla report — Netanyahu delivered a remarkable speech on Friday before the Jewish sabbath. On the embassy attack:
Early this morning, at about 5 a.m., a complex rescue operation was safely completed to free the staff of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. From inside the Situation Room at the Foreign Ministry, I worked alongside the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of defense, the head of the Shabak, the head of the Mossad, the . . . [Israeli Defense Forces] chief of staff and all of their staffs. One overriding mission . . . [lay] before us — to secure the welfare and safety of Israel’s emissaries. We worked together in a responsible manner to ensure that this situation would end in the best possible manner. . . .
I would like to express my gratitude to the president of the United States, Barack Obama. I asked for his help. This was a decisive and fateful moment. He said, “I will do everything I can.” And so he did. He used every considerable means and influence of the United States to help us. We owe him a special measure of gratitude.
As for the Egyptian government, which failed to protect the embassy as it is obligated to do, he had these restrained words:
I wish to cite also the intervention of the Egyptian commandos, which prevented a tragedy. We maintained direct channels of communication throughout the night with the Egyptian government. It was clear to all that the defense of an embassy, and particularly the Israeli Embassy, is the obligation of any sovereign state.
I therefore also appreciate the words of the Egyptian information minister, who condemned the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Many world leaders and Arab leaders joined him in this sentiment. I attach great importance to this.
Israel will continue to adhere to the peace treaty with Egypt. We are working together with the Egyptian government to quickly return our ambassador to Cairo. I wish to make sure that the necessary security arrangements for him and for our entire staff will be effective and will assure their necessary safety. At the same time, our diplomatic delegate in Cairo will continue to represent Israel until the ambassador’s return.
As for Turkey, he exuded calm: “We will work toward preventing a further deterioration in our relationship with Turkey. We did not choose this sequence of events. To the extent that the matter depends upon us, we shall act to lower tensions and do everything possible to restore relations.”
Netanyahu’s mind is clearly on the Palestinians: “We shall continue to work toward peace with the Palestinians. To this end, we must return as quickly as possible to the path of direct peace negotiations. Only in this manner will we be able to advance and achieve a peace agreement. Regarding this negotiation, I believe that many people today in our nation and around the world who see what is happening in our area will understand our justified stance in defending our security interests in any future agreement.”
To borrow a Biblical reference, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Now is not a time for bellicosity or defiance by the Israeli prime minister. It’s time, as Netanyahu evidenced, to see if he can keep once-warm relationships from completely deteriorating. It’s a time to elicit the most help he can extract from an administration he now knows has a domestic political problem because of its previously antagonistic relationship with Israel. And he knows that his behavior may affect European countries still on the fence about possible U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood.
How did Netanyahu do? A Middle East hand not given to excessive praise says, ”Damn good.” Certainly, it is a model of diplomacy, in the best sense of the word. He was restrained. He considered the impact that his words would have on public opinion in other countries. He resisted the urge to express Israel’s justifiable outrage at the failure of Egypt to protect Israel’s embassy and to secure the Sinai border.
Netanyahu is governing in the most uncertain of times, one that requires skills and patience not always associated with him. As he told his countrymen: “The Middle East is now undergoing a political earthquake of historic proportions. Perhaps this can be compared to what happened a century ago at the end of the First World War with the establishment of a new world order. In the face of this historic turmoil we must act coolly and with responsibility. We must understand that these events are occurring as a result of deep and strong political undercurrents. We in Israel have a tendency to think that everything happens because of us or that we are somehow at fault for the turbulence in our area. There are many external and strong forces at work here. More than anything else, we must in these times act to safeguard our security. This is the anchor of our existence, especially in these turbulent times. We must work toward advancing our national interests in the area at the appropriate time.”
Given the enormity of the threats and challenges (including the Iranian nuclear program), Netanyahu needs all the help he can get. To that end, yes, it was a “damn good” speech.