When Netanyahu Speaks, The World Listens

Published in The Daily Beast

Likud-Beitenu began their television campaign advertising using clips from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2012 speeches to the U.S. Congress and the U.N. General Assembly in an attempt to put the Iranian threat back on the table, and to establish Netanyahu’s credibility as a powerful, admired and experienced world leader.

The almost two-minute ad, entitled, “When Netanyahu speaks, the World Listens,” opens with a zoom-in on the Capitol building in Washington, with applause providing an audio cue of approval, then cuts to Netanyahu addressing the U.S. Congress. “If history has taught the Jewish people anything,” Netanyahu declares, “it is that we must take calls for our destruction seriously. We are a nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust.”

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The Holocaust connection is important, emphasizing the scale of the stakes and trying to make the threat unambiguous, and trumping criticism of the notion of attacking Iran in a way that played well to American ears when it was first delivered, but also appeals to Israelis. This first section of the speech builds up to the defiant slogan long embraced in its Holocaust context by American Jews and non-Jews alike—“When we say Never Again, we mean Never Again!”—which triggers a standing ovation from the Congress.

The Iranian threat, of course, is real, but its immediacy gets turned on and off by the Prime Minister like a faucet. We heard the Iran drumbeat much more regularly during the run-up to the American elections, until it became clear that Obama was likely to win, than we have in the Israeli election campaign.

The lulling music behind the speech, however, undercuts the sense of urgency, and suggests that the ad’s larger agenda is to establish Netanyahu’s status as a recognized and admired world leader. This plays to Netanyahu’s strength, since there is no other party leader running in the current election with Netanyahu’s experience on the world stage. HaTnuah uses shots of Tzippi Livni with American leaders, including Obama, to establish her international credibility, but she has not had the same level of exposure in international forums.

The Congressional setting lends Netanyahu the gravity, dignity and power that Israeli viewers associate with the American government, which justifies the trade-off of targeting Israeli voters with a speech in English. The U.S. Congress is probably Netanyahu’s most supportive forum on the planet other than an AIPAC conference, far more fawning than the Knesset, where he would never get unanimous ovations.

The ad then cuts to Netanyahu’s last speech at the U.N. General Assembly. Like his Congressional address, the talk was considered a triumph in Israel, even if Netanyahu’s U.N. audience was much less sympathetic (no ovations here). In words clearly intended for domestic consumption, Netanyahu lectured the world forum about King David, Jerusalem, and the return of the Jewish people to its homeland after 3000 years, and told them Jews will “never be uprooted again.”

While we hear his words, the visuals show aerial shots of the Old City walls. Aerial footage is always used in campaign ads for its sweep, to create a sense of grandeur and grandiosity, and here also reinforces Netanyahu’s message of Jewish ownership of Jerusalem.

We cut to a close-up of a soldier shown from behind, praying, his rifle slung over his back. The soldier’s forehead is pressed against his arm, which leans on the Wall itself.

This single shot appropriates two potent symbols for Israelis. First, the Wall, which since ‘67 has assumed iconic status, signifying Judaism, holiness, and Jewish control of Jerusalem, and which is routinely termed the holiest place on earth for the Jewish people. The Wall has featured regularly in Israeli television campaign ads from the right and the left for the last 25 years.

The second component is the soldier—the classic Zionist image of the new Jew that Israel sought to create—the Jew capable of defending himself and his people. Military references are always a symbol of strength, but in this case, the soldier is shown in a posture of supplication, and the crucial dimension is the linkage between self-defense, Judaism and God. It also evokes the familiar shots of Israeli paratroopers in ’67 who captured the Wall, suggesting the city’s reunification and, by inference, the indivisibility of Jerusalem. The soldier wears a beret, and could be secular, Orthodox or traditional; the Kotel also serves as the backdrop for military swearing-in and other ceremonies.

We then briefly see Netanyahu holding up his his Rocky and Bullwinkle drawing of a bomb with a lit fuse to show time running out on Iran, his U.N. stunt that went viral on the Internet and greatly entertained Netanyahu’s constituency. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid parodied this image with his own bomb drawing of time running out on Israel’s domestic affairs, which shows up as a clip in Yesh Atid’s campaign ad.

We then see a still photo of a small boy in a white shirt holding a giant Israeli flag, rippling in the wind. Attractive, smiling children are deployed to evoke hope and looking ahead. Flag waving is a standard patriotic trope in all political advertising, but the composition of the photo, ironically, evokes the marching-toward-the-future imagery of socialist realism, omnipresent in Israel’s first few decades. The white shirt could signify religious Jews, who tend to wear white shirts more than the rest of the population in Israel, or simply purity.

We jump back to the Congress, so the ad can wrap up in a friendly and supportive setting. We hear Netanyahu, amid steady applause, talking about the 4000-year-old bond between Jews and the land of Israel, and warning that Jerusalem must never be divided and must remain Israel’s united capital. This is a widely supported position among American politicians, and predictably earns another standing ovation.

The camera pulls back to show Netanyahu on the dais with the giant American flag behind him, hundreds of American legislators on their feet clapping, again lending the authority of the United States and its enthusiastic support to Israel’s Prime Minister.

The shot of Congress fades to the campaign image gracing billboards across Israel; Netanyahu in his dark power suit looking out to the voters, next to the slogan, A Strong Prime Minister, a Strong Israel. Strength and authority is the message.

Naturally, there are no shots of Netanyahu with President Obama, with whom he has had a much rockier relationship than the sycophantic Congress. Also absent from the ad is former Yisrael Beitenu leader, Avigdor Lieberman, currently taking a leave from politics to fight his indictment.

And there are no women in this ad whatsoever. The danger of Iran, like international politics, is men’s business, the ad is telling us.

The billboard image gives way to a title card that says, “When Netanyahu Speaks, the World Listens.” The applause continues throughout, returning to the pervasive audio cue to viewers to follow America’s lead and endorse Netanyahu. According to the polls, more than a quarter of the voters, give or take a few percentage points, will do as Likud-Beteinu advises.

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