ISRAELI PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government had ample reason to avoid speeches by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denied the Holocaust and threatened to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the map. But it stands to reason that the Israeli prime minister would at least hear out Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who has acknowledged the Holocaust and wished Jews a happy Rosh Hashana on Twitter. But Netanyahu treats the two leaders the same.
He recently ordered Israeli diplomats to leave the United Nations General Assembly during Rouhani’s speech, just as they did during Ahmadinejad’s fiery sermons. In dismissing Rouhani this week as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Netanyahu implicitly gives Ahmadinejad a measure of credit for making his intentions transparent. “Ahmadinejad said, ‘We can get to nuclear weapons with a frown,’ ” Netanyahu said on “CBS This Morning.” “Rouhani says, ‘we can get to nuclear weapons with a smile.’ ”
In fact, Rouhani goes beyond the standard assurances that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon and says his government will resolve all outstanding concerns about the program in the next 12 months. It’s too early to tell if those are empty promises, or a sign of a real change. No one faults Netanyahu for his skepticism.
But the way Netanyahu expresses it may do Israel more harm than good. Netanyahu’s own finance minister, Yair Lapid, criticized the Israeli walkout at the United Nations, saying: “Israel should not let itself be portrayed as a chronic opponent of negotiations and as a state that is not interested in peaceful solutions.”
There may be value in Netanyahu playing the role of bad cop — opposite Obama’s good cop — in a routine to get Iran to come clean. But it’s also important for him to gain a better understanding of the new Iranian president before concluding he isn’t even worth listening to.