For too many years I’ve heard a common complaint from friends in the region: Israel controls American politics. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s May 2011 visit undoubtedly reinforced that impression – from a standing ovation in Congress to thunderous applause at AIPAC, the American-Israeli lobby conference, it would seem that Israel is in control.
What my Arab friends fail to understand is the valuable lessons that Netanyahu offers if you only take a moment to analyze what he’s doing – and why. So stop complaining, read and think. It’s really very simple. Much easier than ending the 30 year reign of President Mubarak.
In reverse order of importance, saving the best for last, here are the key lessons you can learn from Netanyahu’s Washington visit (or, as I like to say, "How You Too Can Play the American Political Game"):
#8: Be charming – you may think the Israeli PM has as much warmth as a lizard. Yet when he wants to turn on that high voltage smile, he does. And he was oozing charm – and also strength - in Congress. He leaned forward, arms resting on the podium, speaking almost informally, sending body language that was unmistakably at ease. He knows them, they know him and he showed off that rapport.
#7: Simple clear messages – don’t confuse your audience with multiple talking points, UN Security Council resolution numbers (few Americans know what they mean), endless litany of grievances. Keep it simple. Very simple. Netanyahu reinforced three key themes throughout his visit: (1) security: 1967 borders are indefensible, no negotiating with Hamas, tough stance on Iran (2) the Arab Spring means Israel offers the U.S. stability in a region going through tremendous change (3) the U.S. and Israel share common values, including democracy.
#6: Welcome hecklers – when opponents interrupted him during his AIPAC speech and his address to Congress, he underscored the common democratic values that Israel and the U.S. share. He joked that such an event could not happen in Gaza, or in Tripoli or Tehran. Notice he didn’t add Cairo or Tunis to that list. Your new president can now point out that after decades of repression, Egyptians have found their voice and he/she welcomes those outbursts as signs of the New Egypt that has emerged.
#5: Strike a hardline position, then seem to be conciliatory – immediately after President Obama’s Arab Spring speech on May 19th, Netanyahu struck a public and firm position that the 1967 borders were indefensible. He said it over and over. Then, he seemed to offer a concession saying that he “would be generous” in offering land for a new Palestinian state. “Generous”??! As President Obama pointed out and as everyone has known since 2000, the outlines of the peace deal are done. Crystal clear. Even the land swaps. So Netanyahu’s seeming “generosity” may help his staunch allies counter President Obama’s demands for 1967 borders, but it’s a game. He draws a hardline, offers nothing new, just a mirage-like concession and, voila, he’s the good guy. Nicely done.
#4: Don’t do all the talking – that’s what you have friends for. From the Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Netanyahu has many friends among the 535 members of Congress and he can count on them to reiterate and reinforce key messages. That’s why it’s so important that those key messages be closely tied, as Israel’s are, to core U.S. national security interests. Don’t expect American legislators to stand up for your country’s interests if these aren’t closely aligned with ours.
#3: If the facts aren’t in your favor, ignore them – Netanyahu stubbornly maintains that Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens are more free than the 300 million in the rest of the Arab world. The Arab Spring is leveling the playing field yet he refuses to acknowledge it. Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are transitioning to the democratic nations they will become – but you’re on the road and he will not acknowledge it. Which brings me to my next lesson…
#2: Notice his Achilles Heel (and don’t let it be yours) – Netanyahu will never admit that Israel’s Palestinian citizens are treated like second-class citizens. I should point out that they do have the right to seek justice in Israeli courts. Yet it is sadly quite true that they have difficulty securing jobs, building or expanding their homes, and receive fewer services. Egypt can do better with its minorities. And must. Celebrate diversity, embrace Copts (among others) and refute the claims made by Mubarak’s supporters and other detractors, including Netanyahu, that the Tahrir Square Nation will not protect these groups. President Obama reminded us, “In Tahrir Square, we heard Egyptians from all walks of life chant, ‘Muslims, Christians, we are one.’ America will work to see that this spirit prevails – that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them.” Take advantage of that offer.
#1: Leave DC, get to know real Americans: Yes, Netanyahu spoke to two audiences in Washington but he projected far beyond the road that rings the city: the people there came from or represented constituents 10 to 5,000 miles away. Israel has consulates in many major U.S. cities and they are active. Their diplomats are in touch with local papers, TV stations, speak to local civic and religious groups, many have studied or lived in the U.S previously. They know the country. Egyptian diplomats have done very well in the past; here I would highlight Amb. Nabil Fahmy’s outstanding service and dedication. He understood Americans very well and could accurately interpret American politics for Cairo. He had a number of superb senior diplomats working with him. Many more are needed.
Maggie Mitchell Salem is Executive Director of the Qatar Foundation International and was a former Special Assistant to US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright