Iran vs. Israel in Davos: Who Made the Best Impression?

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, at the World Economic Forum. Photograph by Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Today in Davos, Switzerland, the leaders of archenemies Iran and Israel appeared on the same stage, four hours apart, in strikingly different efforts to win the hearts and minds of the world’s business and government elites gathered for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Here’s a score card of their performances:

Fresh face: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who led things off, was the first Iranian leader to speak at Davos in a decade. Davosians crammed into Congress Hall, the biggest meeting room in the conference’s main center, to take measure of the new guy, who took office last August. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by contrast, is old news not just to the Davos crowd but to anyone in the world with a television.

Round One: Rouhani.

Intelligibility: Rouhani spoke in Farsi, which was translated haltingly into other languages for people listening on headphones. Netanyahu spoke fluent English.

Round Two: Netanyahu.

Likability: Rouhani didn’t smile until the very end of his talk, when he said thank you. But he benefited by comparison to the remote supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and to his predecessor as president, the loose cannon Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Netanyahu was smooth but perhaps a bit too self-confident. He said other nations should join with Israel to tap the creativity of the “innovation nation”—implying the others can’t invent their own stuff.

Round Three: Rouhani.

Direct hits: Rouhani didn’t take any shots at Israel by name. The closest was when he said “a possible impediment” to a permanent deal on Iran’s nuclear program “may be a lack of serious will by the other party or parties, or they may be pressured by others.” The pressure from others seemed like a veiled reference to Israel. Rouhani also didn’t mention the U.S. by name. Netanyahu left Iran out of his prepared remarks, but in the Q&A session he ridiculed Rouhani’s “soft words” and accused the Revolutionary Guards and Iran-backed Hezbollah of slaughtering people in Syria.

Round Four: Netanyahu.

Truthfulness: This is the tiebreaker and actually the most important consideration. Netanyahu said Israel’s cows produce the most milk. Hard to verify right away, but let’s give him that one. He said it’s the best place for water recycling and cybersecurity. OK, could be.

Rouhani, in contrast, said Iran isn’t developing nuclear weapons and, what’s more, never has. “I strongly and clearly declare that nuclear weapons have no place in our security strategy, and Iran has no interest to move in that direction,” he said. That sounds like a stretcher.

Netanyahu reasonably asked why Iran insists on keeping centrifuges that can produce weapons-grade uranium. The U.S. and its allies are dubious that Iran has no bomb aspirations, although United Nations inspectors recently verified that Iran froze its most sensitive nuclear work, clearing the way for partial removal of sanctions.

Round Five: Netanyahu.

On this score card, Netanyahu won on points. But the main thing is that the two leaders felt the need to win over the international community instead of hunkering down for conflict. A charm offensive is better than a military one anytime.

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