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What’s in a Name? Pondering “Bibi”

Writing at the Atlantic, Michael Koplow observes that in the vice presidential debate last week, Joe Biden referenced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by nickname only—and presumed (correctly, one imagines) that most viewers knew exactly who he was talking about. Koplow also notes that “Bibi” was raised in a discussion about Iran, and that this tells us something about the prime minister’s familiarity with American voters and officials and the issue foremost in his mind during the course of that relationship. (Koplow doesn’t mention that the public’s proclivity, especially in Israel, to call the prime minister “Bibi” prevailed over Netanyahu’s initial objections, as recounted in Jonathan’s 1996 piece on the subject.)

Koplow writes that Biden may have referred to Netanyahu this way in part to demonstrate his foreign-policy chops against an opponent less experienced on the topic, but cautions that Bibi’s familiarity with the American public (and vice versa) carries with it some downside: Netanyahu, having warned of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East for so long, may have less credibility; the constant use of his nickname may make Netanyahu overly familiar here, and thus taken less seriously; and that it conflates Netanyahu’s position on Iran with that of his country when, if I may paraphrase Golda Meir, it is a country of eight million prime ministers. Yet it’s possible to discern which of these theories is window dressing and which tell us what we need to know about Netanyahu’s standing in America.

It’s doubtful that Biden was thinking all that through, and almost surely just wanted to display his experience. (Can you picture Paul Ryan introducing the topic by just saying “Bibi”?) Indeed, let’s remember that in Netanyahu’s address to a Joint Session of Congress last year, he began by turning halfway around to Biden, who was seated behind him, smiling, and saying: “Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time that we were the new kids in town?” The two then shook hands to applause, and Netanyahu continued: “And I do see a lot of old friends here.”

People think of Biden as having been in the Senate forever (he’s been there since 1973). Netanyahu was padding his own credibility by suggesting the two were “the new kids” in Washington together. Biden was doing the exact same thing in his debate with Ryan, as if to co-opt Netanyahu’s years and years of presumed seriousness on the subject.

And that, I think, answers the question about Netanyahu’s credibility—at least as the White House and Congress see it. The Obama administration talks about the Iranian threat in dire terms, and the American people, in poll after poll, seem to broadly agree. Biden, ever the populist and perhaps more in tune with public opinion than even his boss—to the extent that he would falsely deny voting for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because he thinks that is what the public wishes he would have done—had to reach for a trump card in his debate with Ryan. He needed to display his toughness and expertise on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. And the best way to do that, he assumed, was to basically say “I’m with Bibi.”

That suggests a duel victory by Netanyahu: he has achieved something even more than first-name basis with the American people; he’s on a nickname basis with them. And this has raised the profile of the Iranian nuclear program and the threat it poses by focusing like a laser on the issue. Biden probably also realizes something else: that for as long as Netanyahu has warned abut the need for sanctions and other measures against Iran, journalists have been warning of a coming war with Iran. That is, Netanyahu hasn’t been threatening war; rather, reporters have been wrongly assuming that war was imminent, and they are the ones who look foolish after all these years. (Though, like a stopped clock, they may eventually be right, they have been wrong too many times to count.)

Netanyahu was right: Iran is developing a nuclear program that the majority of the population both here and in Israel believes represents a terrible threat to world peace and security. The media’s credibility, on the other hand, should have just about run dry at this point. Netanyahu’s knowledge of American politics extends to the public’s broad distrust of the media. The onus for that is on the press itself, not Netanyahu. That skepticism would have prevailed, Bibi or no Bibi.