Netanyahu’s Bonding Discourse and 1% Decisions
Anything interesting, novel, or exciting about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was absorbed by the flap over the diplomatic slight. And even if President Obama was feigning a gigantic yawn to signal his disinterest, it was an apt response. To be sure, the Prime Minister is an interesting and engaging fellow who is always worth listening to. But this time there was very little new and the content of the speech was rather bland.
Benjamin Netanyahu lives in a world of 1% decisions. These are decisions that have a low probability of occurrence (1%), but the consequences of being wrong are catastrophic. Hence, the probability of Iran actually using a nuclear weapon – even on Israel – is small, but if you are wrong, well, you will not recover. Decision-makers in these conditions of 1% decisions usually figure they have to protect themselves, that they cannot take the chance of being wrong, so they respond aggressively in order to prevent the low probability occurrence in the first place. This sort of thinking and decision strategizing escalates the consequences quickly. One side, say Netanyahu and Israel, immediately takes more extreme measures because even though the threat is small it is existential. What Netanyahu would really like, although he will not say this directly, is for the United States to bomb Iran. I don’t think this is going to happen under any sort of President but clearly the Prime Minister is trying to scare the United States so we will react more aggressively.
I actually waited a little while before posting about Netanyahu’s speech because I wanted to see what issues emerged. I was pretty sure he would do three things. First, as I said above, he would try to scare the United States into feeling the same existential threat as Israelis. That is, he would work to enlist the support of the United States (and especially the people in that room) with some bonding discourse characteristic of groups with much in common. There would be lots of references to the shared cultural, political, and democratic nature of the United States and Israel. Secondly, I was quite convinced he would portray Iran as a crazed Islamic Republic seeking to dominate first Arab capitals and someday Western ones. There would be references to religious extremism and the triumphalist mentality of jihadism. And third, I knew he would argue that the current efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities or stop it completely through negotiations was either impossible or as he put it a “bad deal.” He did criticize the nuclear deal implying everybody’s naïveté but his own.
Israel’s foreign policy is based on existential threat. And one cannot be naïve, they do have their share of enemies and anti-Semitism and the equation of Zionism with colonialism is on the increase. But from a rather “rational” standpoint rather than the gut feeling that describes most thinking about Iran’s barbaric and aggressive nature it is just as easy to argue that Iran would not use a nuclear weapon. First, if Iran used a weapon they certainly know that they would invite a response. It would justify the other country, namely Israel, using their weapons. Secondly, any culture that used a nuclear weapon would immediately become an international pariah and suffer in such a way that they might not recover. Third, there are some solid ways to include the international community in Iran’s nuclear program and maintain some control to ensure that its nuclear material does not become weaponized. Netanyahu, as we saw from his acceptance of the speaking engagement without consulting the president, has a tin ear when it comes to diplomacy so why would we expect him to be any better at diplomacy when it comes to Iran?
I don’t think that other issues (such as his upcoming election) are particularly pertinent although Israelis may have enjoyed the image of their strong leader speaking to the U.S. Congress. It is possible to view Netanyahu’s appearance before the U.S. Congress, which is a fairly conservative Congress, and his bonding discourse as dangerous. When divergent groups “bridge” and try to close gaps between them, more extreme positions are moderated. So, if the Israelis and Palestinians have contact and build a bridge from the discourse of Zionism to Palestinian nation building, then extremists will be marginalized and the discourse of violence will subside. But bonding discourse, which is what Netanyahu did with the Congress, among the like-minded exaggerates differences, intensifies the sense of cohesion, and creates polarization. Netanyahu probably did not accomplish much with respect to the specifics of the treaty with Iran, and he probably did not scare too many people, but he did make his case to the world.
The only problem is that Netanyahu was talking to the wrong people. He does need to talk to the world or bond with his friends – he needs to walk over the bridge and talk to his neighbors.