Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, September 27, 2012 was constructed around a piece of visual rhetoric. Having tussled with the US administration and embroiled himself, undiplomatically, in the presidential election campaign by picking a quarrel with Obama, Bibi came to New York to make his case, yet again, for the immediacy of the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Verbally, he knew which analogies to draw on to press the importance of drawing a red line – at the enrichment of uranium at weapon-grade level – that the Iranian government must not cross if it is to avoid military retaliation. Playing hypothetical history, Bibi argued that the Nazi regime in the 1930s and the Iraqi regime in 1990 would have been deterred by the drawing of such red lines, and wars could have been prevented. “Red lines don’t lead to war”, he said “they prevent war”. Faced with a red line, Iran will back down. Red lines save lives.
In Netanyahu’s rhetoric, peace is the prevention of war, even by military means. His notion of peace is the absence of war, the avoidance of any attack on Israel, the quietude of the security of arms, of superior force. This is a powerful image of peace in Israel, one that resonates especially strongly on the day after Yom Kippur, which will forever be inscribed in Israeli public memory as the anniversary in the Jewish calendar of the war that began on October 6, 1973. The memory was kept alive in the Israeli media this year by reports about a new book about the war and its battles, some recently reworked sound recordings of the opening bombardment of Israeli positions by the Suez canal, accompanied by an item about a woman soldier who allegedly had hidden rather taken part in an exchange of fire a few days before along Israel’s border with Egypt. In his speech, Netanyahu invited the rest of the ‘modern’ world to feel equally threatened, equally in need of brave soldiers who wouldn’t hide from bullets, when he spoke of the battle it faced with the medieval forces of Islamic extremism. Israel, Europe, America, he said, faced an enemy that would extinguish freedom and end peace. And the Jewish people have a track record of overcoming those who would destroy them. So, in other words, don’t worry America, Israel has your back – or can you push forward into the next war.
But Bibi’s visual gesture undermined the gravity of his verbal delivery. This was not Colin Powell at the UN in 2003 presenting ‘evidence’ of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, to his later regret. This was a man with a drawing of a cartoon bomb that seems to have been borrowed from the Spy v. Spy strip. All the complexities of an atomic bomb reduced to a black and white outline and a fizzing fuse. The black and white figures of the Spy v. Spy cartoon also tell us about Netanyahu’s equally black and white, West v. East, good against evil Manichaeism. With a Manichean view of the world, peace can mean only victory over your enemy, never making peace with your enemy. In the battle which Netanyahu pictures of ‘modern’ v. ‘medieval’, there is no room for compromise, no security without might, no rest from drawing red lines to keep the evil out.