In case you missed it, Bibi doesn’t like Rouhani

Say what you will about Bibi, but the guy stays on message.

In his speech at the U.N. yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drove home the same point he’s been repeating since he (re)took office in 2009: Iran’s trying to get the bomb, we need to stop it and the way to do that is sanctions plus a credible military threat. In many ways, it was a lot like the speech he gave at the U.N. last year.

Here are a few similarities and differences that jumped out at me:

  • This time, it’s personal. With the newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leading a full-throttle charm offensive in New York, Bibi turned his attack on the Iranian leader himself. The prime minister mentioned Rouhani 25 times in the first 24 minutes of the speech, mostly calling him (in so many words) a dissembling servant of a violent, oppressive regime. I didn’t watch many other speeches at this year’s General Assembly, but it would surprise me if any other world leader spent as much time as Bibi did talking about another head of state.
  • Bibi, as always, is a student of history. He began the speech talking about 4,000 years of Jewish history (though Walter Sobchak would disagree) and ended by quoting the prophet Amos. He said that Israel’s relations with Iran go back millennia  to the ancient King Cyrus. He mentioned his grandfather’s experience of anti-Semitism, the Nazis and the Maccabees — not to mention a string of attacks sponsored by Iran. It’s often been said that Bibi sees himself in an epic role — the modern-day Churchill. This speech fit that theme.
  • He’s also quick with the wordplay. Maybe Bibi didn’t brandish a cartoon bomb this year, but he sneaked in some pithy phrases: Ahmadinejad was a “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” while Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing;” Rouhani wants “to have his yellowcake and eat it, too;” Bibi juxtaposed “Iran’s savage record” with “Rouhani’s soothing rhetoric.”
  • Of the speech’s 33 minutes, Bibi devoted about 30 to Iran. Since Bibi last addressed the U.N., peace talks with the Palestinians have begun, Syria has — according to most — used chemical weapons and Egypt is in a new round of turmoil. But Bibi hardly mentioned any of that. He devoted two minutes to the peace talks, mentioned Syria only in the context of Iran and didn’t mention Egypt at all. Iran, it seems, has remained his top priority.
  • And like all of Bibi’s international speeches, this was at least in part meant for a domestic Israeli audience. It helped that it aired on prime-time Israeli TV. Facing some internal criticism for being too soft in the Palestinian negotiations, Bibi sent the message to his citizens that Israel will “stand alone” if necessary — and the speech seemed to at least partially work. Yediot Aharonot, a leading paper that’s long been sharply critical of Bibi, wrote in an editorial today that “Yesterday he seemed – and this is not a printing mistake – trustworthy.”
Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.