Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly unusual speech today, arranged through his capacity as Israel’s liaison to the Republican Party, has been viewed by his critics primarily as an exercise in cynical manipulation. Netanyahu is attempting to manipulate Congress to support his diplomatic agenda over the president’s, and, perhaps, to manipulate the Israeli public in the run-up to his own endangered reelection. But the most plausible explanation for Netanyahu’s speech is the simplest: Netanyahu claims to be speaking up on behalf of his country’s very survival because this is what he believes. And this belief, while not well-supported or even internally coherent, is not entirely crazy. It is a mix of genuine threat and a crude historicism infecting large segments of the Jewish community worldwide. While any of us who have a long familiarity with the Jewish community regard this form of historicism with familiarity, and even a little sympathy, it is blinding and debilitating.
Netanyahu’s panicked plea for what he called “the survival of our country” is hardly a figment of his imagination. His recitation of the evils of Iran’s regime was largely correct. He might conceivably be correct that the Obama administration could have secured a stronger deal with Iran than the one it is negotiating, though that conclusion is hard to vouchsafe without detailed knowledge of the negotiations. Even if Obama has negotiated the strongest possible agreement, Netanyahu is almost certainly correct that the agreement is, in some absolute sense, bad. No agreement can permanently, verifiably prevent Iran from ever obtaining nuclear weapons. A world with a nuclear Iran will be far more dangerous.
But Netanyahu did not make even the barest case for a better alternative. He claimed “the alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal” without so much as hinting as to how a better deal might be secured. He scoffed at the workability of nuclear inspections by citing North Korea’s successful evasion, which underscores the difficulty of any nuclear negotiations. (It’s worth recalling that, while North Korea, like Iran, has issued frightening threats, it has not acted on them.) Netanyahu argued that the prospective deal’s ten-year time frame is far too short — “the blink of an eye” — without comparing it to the duration of a military strike that would, at best, set back Iran’s nuclear timetable by half as long. He is a man without a plan.
Netanyahu’s lack of strategic coherence reflects a defiant, self-pitying strain of Jewish thought. (Leon Wieseltier dissected it brilliantly a dozen years ago.) It equates all strategic enemies of the Jewish people with each other, in a long, undifferentiated historical stream. They all share the same goal, the complete elimination of the Jewish people, from the Persian kings of the story of Purim through Hitler through whichever geopolitical enemy faces Israel at any given moment. (The best Jewish joke in The Big Lebowski comes when Walter Sobchak, a convert, reveals the full extent to which he has imbibed Jewish culture when he laments, “Fuckin’ Germans. Nothing changes.”) This is a pathology, rendering important distinctions or tactical adjustments unnecessary.
One way in which this fatalism disables sensible action is by convincing Jews that the world is so implacably hostile that winning allies through normal diplomacy is pointless. Why try to avert isolation by withdrawing from the West Bank, when the world will always blame the Jews anyway? (Ironically, the same hawks who usually write off the possibility of international support in this case believe, or must believe, that the outside world will support stronger sanctions against Iran indefinitely.) Another effect of this pathology is to collapse all distinctions between the strategic goals of different opponents into neo-Hitlerism. In 1993, Netanyahu was comparing the Israeli government’s attempt to make peace with Palestinians to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of you-know-who — “Earlier in this century, Neville Chamberlain thought he could buy “peace in our time” by handing over the mountain defenses of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, who promised to accept a deal of “land for peace.”
As he has many times before, Netanyahu today invoked all the touchstones of the pathology. He compared Iran to Haman, the original Hitler figure. He cited Elie Wiesel, planted in the audience, portentously declaring, “I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned.” He graphically insisted upon the genocidal intentions of the Iranian regime — which, he argued, is too irrationally aggressive to be deterred, and which desires not merely the elimination of Israel but all Jews worldwide.
In fact, as Peter Beinart has pointed out, Western intelligence considers the Iranian regime, however noxious and dangerous, fundamentally deterrable:
That’s why the Bush administration’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said Iran is “guided by a cost-benefit approach.” It’s why Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2012 that “we are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor.” It’s why Benny Gantz, then head of the Israel Defense Forces, declared the same year that “the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” It’s why Meir Dagan, the longtime head of Israel’s intelligence agency, called the Iranian regime “rational” in an interview with 60 Minutes. And it’s why Ron Burgess, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that “the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or provoke a conflict.”
If Netanyahu actually followed through on the logic of his speech, he would advocate its only real logical conclusion: a nuclear first strike that would wipe out every Iranian population center, which is the only way to disable the regime’s nuclear program over the long run. He did not advocate such a move, which would, one hopes, be too horrific for even a hawk like Netanyahu to contemplate.
He insisted both that Iran is implacably bent on endless aggression and that it could somehow be persuaded to accept less favorable terms than those it is currently balking at. For all the clarity and starkness of Netanyahu’s ringing words, the thought under-girding it was sentimental mush.