One of the first lessons that a child in a politically alert family may learn is not to believe campaign promises.
Years later that child may learn that politicians have to stretch the truth, or hide their intentions, in order to satisfy complex constituencies that are not comfortable with one another. A person seeking to win or stay in an important office must appeal to both A and B, who are interested in different things, and may disagree on something important.
Or at a more sophisticated level, how to interpret what a politician says?
This week we heard two expressions that are more important than usual, and beg interpretation.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said that Republicans in the House of Representatives must abandon their ideological campaign. He will not compromise for the sake of a budget.
In New York, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu seemed to be giving an ultimatum to President Obama and other heads of major governments intent on negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program. He told the United Nations General Assembly that Israel would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if the greater powers did not succeed in doing so via negotiations.
It is not hard to find competing interpretation of both statements.
There are commentators who specialize in American and Israeli politics who assert that both Obama and Netanyahu are blustering, with no intention to endanger either the American economy or world peace.
Associated with that view about the American President is the prediction that some kind of compromise, appropriately fudged to give reasons for both the Republicans and the President to claim victory, will end the budget crisis in a few days.
There are Bibi-watchers who say is he saying the same old thing, i.e., a threat not likely to be implemented, but meant to get as much as possible from those with real power who are dealing with Iran. Some say that Bibi is primarily concerned to prop up a shaky coalition at home, where his right wing has been signalling a lack of satisfaction and maybe even searching for an alternative head of their party and government.
Commentators are also noting that while the Prime Minister devoted something like 33 minutes of his speech to Iran, he spoke for only two minutes about Palestine. And while those two minutes included yet another commitment to work toward a two-state solution, the essence was to blame the Palestinians for not matching Israeli efforts with respect to the concessions necessary for an agreement.
Anti-Netanyahu Israeli commentators are noting that the General Assembly was largely empty when the Prime Minister spoke. He was at the end of the schedule, and almost all the distinguished figures had gone home. Israeli skeptics also note that Americans and at least a few Europeans are more concerned with Washington's budget impasse than with Israel, Iran, or nuclear weapons.
Whatever the nasties want to say about him, Netanyahu's speech has been widely covered in the international media.
The American President delayed scheduled remarks on the budget. According to one interpretation, it was to give American networks an opportunity to cover his comments and the Prime Minister's speech.
So what should we expect from the two national leaders?
Those with enough clout to move the New York Stock Exchange seemed to think that the Republicans and Obama will find a solution for their problem before too long. On the day that much of the federal government stopped functioning, the S&P 500 climbed by 13 points and the Dow by 62. The market dropped the next day, but--so far-- not by anything out of the ordinary.
Israeli commentators are divided, but the tilt may be in the direction of believing the Prime Minister's threat. Even opposing politicians and chronically anti-Bibi commentators who chide his tactics of speaking so forcefully about Iran and skipping over the issue of Palestine accept his view of the Iranian threat.
Those who wish to interpret Netanyahu's speech for themselves can begin here
Among the competing interpretations that are reasonable:
- Netanyahu will no longer be Prime Minister whenever it is that negotiations between Western governments and Iran end, either well or badly.
- Neither Netanyahu or whoever is the Israeli Prime Minister will not insist on all the conditions demanded by Netanyahu for a complete dismantling of Iran's nuclear facilities.
- Western governments, concerned about Israel's military capacity, will demand serious reversals in Iran's nuclear program, together with inspections, perhaps by a body more likely to be assiduous than the International Atomic Energy Agency, headed not so long ago by an Egyptian inclined to waffle on the Iranians.
- Whoever is the Israeli Prime Minister will act forcefully against a stubborn Iran, thinking more like Netanyahu about the Holocaust and continued Iranian assertions of Israel's illegitimacy, and not tolerant of endless talks or an ambiguous outcome
- Israel's military response--in the event that it takes one--may be enough to hurt and delay the Iranian program, or much more severe, depending on how the Israeli leadership judges the risks from Iran and the postures of the US and major European governments..
How to interpret Netanyahu's few comments about Palestinians and what may be Obama's greater concern for them is its another problem, with its own set of possibilities.
- Are the Palestinians out there in the weeds, unlikely to get more than a few economic concessions out of this current round of talks, with who knows what Palestinian violence and Israeli destruction of Palestine that may come later?
- Are the Israel-Palestinian negotiations important enough to affect how the US or Israel will act with respect to Iran?
As suggested above, interpreting politicians offers more challenges than anything close to certainty.