With the decline of traditional print media, the fracturing of broadcast and cable TV and the explosion of new and social media online, political leaders have a rich array of outlets to spread their messages.
Think of President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which is accountable to no one but him. In less than one minute he can deliver a message, an insult, a screed or even a policy push to 52 million followers. They include hundreds of media eagerly awaiting the next presidential outburst for their day’s story.
As counterproductive as the president’s tweets often seem, this direct communications tool enables Trump to set the day’s news agenda about himself. He can’t tell people what to think, but he can tell people what to think about - namely him.
This week we’re going to examine the message within the effective briefing last week by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the hidden and ongoing dangers of Iran’s nuclear program and its nuclear deal with the West. This is a compelling example of modern political persuasion at work through media.
Such briefings are often done as a photo-op ostensibly for a leader who could in reality digest the same information back in the office. The real point is for voters to see the leader preparing for hurricanes, etc.
Netanyahu, however, gave the briefing himself, to a global TV audience, especially American allies and one in particular, though Trump had previously been briefed.
After a short explanation in Hebrew for his domestic audience (14 second mark) on speaking English so more people got the message, Netanyahu launched into a powerful 19-minute dissertation on Iran’s serial duplicities about its nuclear weapons program, using video clips, photos, copies of Iranian notes and stage props and images perfectly coordinated with his spotless English words and idioms.
“Tonight,” he said, “we’re going to show you something that the world has never seen before (44 secs)?¦.. We’re going to show you Iran’s secret nuclear files.”
He used short video clips one after another to show successive Iranian leaders claiming no interest in a nuclear program (1:27). He showed aerial and on-the-ground photographs of a secret Iranian warehouse containing Iran’s nuclear archives (2:35). “Few Iranians knew where it was, very few,” the prime minister declared, pausing for effect, “and also a few Israelis.”
He continued: “A few weeks ago, in a great intelligence achievement, Israel obtained half-a-ton of the material inside these vaults.” (3:13) How Mossad agents found the archives, accessed them, removed 1,000 pounds of material and smuggled it out of the country the 1,215 miles to Jerusalem is an espionage exploit we must wait to learn, if ever.
“And here’s what we got,” Netanyahu continued, yanking black drapes off two massive shelves (3:23). “Fifty-five thousand pages. Another 55,000 files on 183 CDs.”
Using document photos, he proceeds to show Iran’s continuing weapons development. “You don’t need to read Farsi to read 10 kilotons here ?” TNT,” Netanyahu declares. “That’s like five Hiroshima bombs to be put on ballistic missiles.” (5:20)
For Americans, Iran is a distant troublemaker. For Israelis, Iran is an existential threat whose leaders vow to erase the Jewish state from the neighborhood map. Iran now has more than 100,000 troops in Syria under Russian training supporting the Assad regime on Israel’s borders. Plus thousands of allied Hezbollah fighters.
President Obama excluded Israel from the 2015 nuclear pact talks, disregarding its repeated expressed concerns of “the terrible deal.” Now in Trump, Israel has a more receptive supporter who’s long called that pact one of the worst in history.
Trump is to decide by May 12 on withdrawing the U.S. from the deal and reinstating sanctions, which Iran claims would allow it to resume full-speed weapons development. Which threatens allied solidarity. And which sets a crucial precedent for Trump’s upcoming nuclear negotiations with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
So, it’s a high-stakes confrontation that Netanyahu entered with his presentation. “These files conclusively prove that Iran is brazenly lying when it says it never had a nuclear weapons program,” he repeated.
Americans are not favorably inclined toward Tehran anyway. But the power and credibility of Netanyahu’s briefing was enhanced by his seamless interaction with the giant stage screen and his complete command of the history and material. Watch his eyes at times check a teleprompter off-screen.
The prime minister warns other countries: “Iran is continually expanding the range of its ballistic missiles, its nuclear-capable missiles. They started with 1,000 kilometers (630 miles), they’re now up to 2,000, roughly. They can reach Riyadh, Tel Aviv, Moscow, but they’re working on far, far greater ranges.” (8:20)
He derides Iran’s claims of peaceful intent. “You don’t put thousands of centrifuges under a mountain to produce medical isotopes. You put them there for one reason: nuclear weapons, enrichment for nuclear weapons.” (11:45)
“Why would a terrorist regime hide and meticulously catalogue its secret nuclear files if not to use them at a later date?” (15:50)
And then the Israeli leader’s conclusion: “In a few days’ time, President Trump will decide, will make a decision on what to do with the nuclear deal. I’m sure he’ll do the right thing. The right thing for the United States, the right thing for Israel and the right thing for the peace of the world.” (17:50)
Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.