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The Honor Games: Netanyahu vs. Rouhani
Akiva Eldar
September 30.

While the eyes of the world are turned to New York in anticipation and hope for the start of a reconciliation between the United States and Iran, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opted to open the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sept. 17 with an aggressive statement toward Iran. In the presence of the reporters and photographers who are invited to cover the first few minutes of cabinet meetings, Netanyahu said that in the speech he plans to deliver at the UN General Assembly in New York, and in his meeting with US President Barack Obama, he will focus on the issue of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. “A rogue state which develops or takes up weapons of mass destruction is certainly likely to use it,” Netanyahu said, adding with bluster: “Only a credible military threat can enable diplomatic processes or other moves to stop this arming.”
The prime minister was not satisfied with this routine message regarding the Iranian threat. In what sounds like veiled criticism of the international community’s “laxness,” Netanyahu laid out four “essential steps” needed to stop the nuclear project: a halt to all uranium enrichment; removal of all enriched uranium from Iran; closure of the facility at Qom and a halt to plutonium production. He ended his words with the overused mantra: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” [Hillel the elder, Avot 1:14]
Netanyahu could have conveyed his message through the accepted diplomatic channels used in international relations. An experienced politician such as himself knows well how to leak and then deny, a way to send messages without their being portrayed as an attempt to impose his will on a sovereign state.
While the world waits in anticipation for the opening of an American-Iranian dialogue at the highest level, Netanyahu opted to publicly dictate a blue-and-white, homemade “red line” to Iran. The discourse of victimization and fright was once again mixed with arrogance and violence. The leader of the right-wing camp, the camp that emphasizes the state of Israel’s “national honor,” repeatedly insults the Persian nation. This is particularly galling when it is dished out by a government which has for decades used force to rule over millions of Muslims and which is a member of the rejectionist club that refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Two days later (on Sept. 19), an unusual article by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was published in The Washington Post. It appealed to the American people in their own language, the language of national pride, and used these motifs as guidelines for a discourse based on honor, equality and mutuality.
“A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights,” the Iranian president wrote. “It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives.” Rouhani noted that as far as Iran was concerned, development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes was a matter of national identity and a right to demand respect and a rightful place in the world. “Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved,” he wrote.
The issue of dignity came up again and again in Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24 and at his meetings with journalists. He spoke repeatedly about the need to replace relations based on a “zero-sum game” with common interests on a win-win basis. These words contain the true message — that one side’s dignity cannot be attained by degrading the other.
The new Iranian president and the ruling sect in Iran understand that “respect requires hard work,” in the immortal sentence of the Israeli musical `Kazablan.`
Rouhani is working overtime to bring about the lifting of sanctions imposed on Iran and to provide jobs for his country’s citizens. For now, most of his work is focused on public relations and on pleasing statements for the Western ear. He promises not to develop nuclear weapons and to engage in a credible dialogue with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recognizes the Holocaust and does not propose the destruction of any state.
But there’s one asset that he is not authorized to cede — Iran’s honor. This means, especially as far as Israel goes, that Iran will disarm itself of nuclear weapons only if, sooner or later, the entire Middle East is disarmed of nuclear weapons. Either everyone has nukes, or no one does. Proud Iran will not cooperate with those who wish to insult the sons of Koresh and to make light of the grand Persian culture by portraying it as a crazy leper state.
President Barack Obama is also somewhat guilty of the sin of arrogant discourse lacking sensitivity to the honor of other nations. In addressing Americans on Sept. 10, while Russian President Vladimir Putin was extricating him from his entanglement in Syria, he boasted: “That`s what makes America different. That`s what makes us exceptional.” Putin rose to defend Russia’s honor. In an article published in The New York Times, he bit back: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. ... We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Obama seems to have gotten the message. In his UN speech (Sept. 24) he spoke of “respect and interests” as the basis for dialogue with Iran, stressing that the United States cannot be the only policeman instilling order around the world.
In an interview with Al-Monitor last week, Israeli doctoral candidate Gil Murciano, who has been researching the issue of honor in diplomatic decision-making, noted that on the face of it, we live in a world of post-honor. “On the face of it,” the young researcher stressed. He found that honor plays a major role in relations between Israel and Iran. Murciano, who is completing his dissertation on the subject at the Free University in Berlin, noted that his research shows that the special relationship between Jerusalem and Tehran in the days of the shah was largely based on the prevailing belief of both nations that they are “chosen people,” superior to their neighboring Arab neighbors. To use the problematic metaphor coined by former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, both countries were perceived as “a villa in a jungle.”
From the Iranian point of view, the failure to recognize Iran’s right to develop nuclear power, and the acceptance of the fact that Pakistan and India have nuclear bombs and that Israel refuses to sign the NPT, undermines their identity and autonomy — meaning, their national honor. From the Israeli point of view, the refusal of the ayatollah’s regime to recognize the right to exist of an independent Jewish-Israeli entity within the June 4, 1967, borders, and its affinity to its historic homeland, undermines its identity and national honor. Honor games based on the rules of zero-sum games are the shortest road for all the players to an abyss.
Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.
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