When speaking about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the US Administration likes to say “words matter.” Both President Barack Obama and various spokespersons for him have repeatedly said a single word from Netanyahu – “indeed” – just prior to the Israeli election in March is a reason to rethink the entire US-Israel relationship.
Netanyahu was speaking to a reporter at a forum in the West Bank, and argued that creating a Palestinian state right now would be dangerous because of the rise of Islamic radicalism across the Middle East – saying, “I think that anyone who goes to create today a Palestinian state and turns over land, is turning over land that will be used as a launching ground for attacks by Islamist extremists against the State of Israel.” He actually made clear in other media appearances around the same time that he meant in the short term, and he was not abandoning past commitments to a two-state solution longer term. However, he was then asked by a reporter, “If you are the prime minister, a Palestinian state won’t be created?” and replied simply with that fatal word: “Indeed.”
This was clearly a serious error on his part – opening himself up to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. (On election day, he also made some ugly and unhelpful remarks about Arab voters.)
Netanyahu did try to clarify repeatedly after the election that his support for a two-state resolution as the only viable resolution for Israel and the Palestinians, first expressed in 2009 – had not changed. For instance, three days later he said:
“I haven’t changed my policy…. What has changed is the reality. [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]… has made a pact with Hamas that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and every territory that is vacated today in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces. We want that to change so that we can realise a vision of real, sustained peace… I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
The US Administration was determined not to accept any such clarification, with Obama saying, “We take him at his word when he said that [Palestinian statehood] wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership” and that this called for a “re-assessment” of America’s ties with Israel and approach to peacemaking.
Moreover, a lot of news media have been following the US Administration’s lead – numerous mainstream media news reports in the months since have asserted that Netanyahu has “ruled out” Palestinian statehood – by implication, permanently.
It is worth contrasting this approach to a single word from Netanyahu with the way the US Administration, as well as many commentators, react to numerous words from Iranian leaders.
Around the time of the signing of the nuclear deal on July 14, Iranian leaders were saying a lot of unhelpful things:
• On July 10, “al-Quds Day”, both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani took part in a demonstration where the slogans “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” were repeatedly shouted.
• Khamenei made it clear how much he approved of the slogans in a Teheran speech on July 18 saying: “The slogans of the people of Iran showed what our orientations are. On Quds Day, the slogan of ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’ shook the scene of the country.”
• In the same speech, Khamenei also said that he would never negotiate with the “the arrogant government of America” over “different global and regional issues” and Iran’s policy toward the US – described in the speech as “transgressing and criminal America” – would “not change in any way.” He also spoke of the “terrorist child-killing government of Zionism”, implied the US was under “Zionists’ domination,” and promised continued Iranian support for “the sincere mujahids of the Resistance in Lebanon and Palestine” – that is, terror groups.
• Official Iranian media reported that Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan pledged on July 20 that Iran had “ruled out any access to the country’s military sites and information by foreign parties”- which seemed to contradict the terms of the nuclear deal, which allows IAEA access to military sites when necessary.
• On July 21, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif also reportedly said to Majlis members something similar about no access to military sites and pointed out the deal did not allow sanctions “snapback” for “small-scale violations” and anyway, business deals with Iran would make renewing sanctions virtually impossible – implying Iran could cheat with impunity.
• Continuing calls in recent weeks by senior Iranian officials for Israel to be “wiped off the map” – have come from both former President Rafsanjani, now head of Iran’s powerful Expediency Council, and in an official statement from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
One could go on and on, but almost no one is interested. Both the US Administration and most commentators treat these words as unimportant.
Thus, when President Obama was asked about the “Death to America” chants and other Iranian and Syrian claims about the deal, he said, “It does not give me pause that Mr. Assad or others in Teheran may be trying to spin the deal in a way that they think is favourable to what their constituencies want to hear. That’s what politicians do…”
Similarly, in the past, Obama has downplayed the antisemitism expressed by the Iranian regime, insisting that, while it certainly should be condemned, it was something that only affected their policies “at the margins”, was really only an “organising tool”, and should not cause any doubt that the regime will behave “rationally”.
Meanwhile, media commentators routinely dismiss vile or violent Iranian statements as simply “for domestic consumption”.
My point is not that there is a gross double standard about when “words matter”, though there clearly is. But in debating the nuclear deal, can’t repeated Iranian words “matter” at least as much Bibi’s disastrous single word “indeed”?