Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Obama Must Shackle Bibi

Tony Karon

Without any sense of irony, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told fellow paranoiac Jeffrey Goldberg that Iran is ruled by “an apocalyptic messianic cult.” Because as Goldberg makes clear, perhaps inadvertently given his own sympathy with Netanyahu’s hysterical views on Iran ( which we’ve previously explored on this site), Bibi’s own views are clearly apocalyptic, and his own sense of himself somewhat messianic.

Golberg suggests that Netanyahu feels a compulsion to act (militarily) to stop Iran attaining nuclear weapons capability, based on, uh, biblical tradition:

“Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit.
If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.

Curiously enough, Goldberg then lets on that Netanyahu doesn’t, in fact, believe that this “apocalyptic, messianic cult” will actually risk suicide by actually launching a nuclear strike at Israel. No, the real threat of an Iranian nuclear capability would be that it would change the regional balance of power. This more sober, balance-of-power talk doesn’t really rouse the public, in Israel or beyond, to the sense of panic necessary to sustain the demand for apocalyptic military action against Iran, so it’s quickly dropped.

Goldberg is more inclined to warn us that Bibi is not, in fact, a rational geopolitical actor perhaps cynically cultivating the “Iran menace” as a red herring to deflect U.S. pressure to settle the conflict with the Palestinians. Heaven forbid! (Presumably Jeffrey didn’t know that when Bibi was last Prime Minister, he actually tried to forge a diplomatic opening with the “apocalyptic, messianic cult” in the hope of reviving Israel’s traditional alliance with non-Arab peoples of the Middle East against the Arabs).

Instead, we are told that Netanyahu is a product of his father’s views of the Spanish inquisition and Jewish history in general:

Over more than 1,300 pages, Benzion Netanyahu argued that Spanish hatred of Jews was not merely theologically motivated but based in race hatred (the Spanish pursued the principle of limpieza de sangre, or the purity of blood) that reached back to the ancient world… A close reading of Benzion Netanyahu suggests a belief that anti-Semitism is a sui generis hatred, one that is shape-shifting, impervious to logic and eternal. The only rational response to such sentiment, in the Netanyahu view, is militant Jewish self-defense.

And also, somehow, that it was the Netanyahu family that was chosen to organize this defense.
I was treated to this same view of world history as an endless drive to destroy the Jews — you know, the kind of thing that makes you think World War II happened because Hitler wanted to kill all the Jews. Goldberg may be impressed by the elder Netanyahu’s scholarship, but I’m more inclined to read the Spanish Inquisition against the politics of post-Reconquista Spain — Jews had traditionally been aligned with the Muslims that had been the main enemy of the Spanish crown, and the Inquisition not only went after Jews, but also those Muslims that had remained behind or converted — later it targeted Protestants, too. It was a vicious institution that underscores the fact that the Catholic Church, as an institution, has throughout its history been as capable of committing despicable evil as it has been of acting in ways that Jesus might have. But I have a hard time reading history with the idea of a shape-shifting, eternal anti-semitism — much less assuming that such a phenomenon defines the present. (For an antidote, I’d recommend Paul Kriwaczek’s marvelous history of Jewish life in Europe, Yiddish Civilization).
If I had more time to blog, I’d have noted during the breaking of the Bernie Madoff scandal how bizarre it was that so many Jewish communal fretted that Madoff would spur a new wave of anti-Semitism. What? In the United States of the 21st Century, anti-Semitism was lurking just below the surface, ready to stir the mob at the flimsiest pretext? And I was particularly angered by the view of the gentile world that this paranoia reflected — an utter inability to accept the sincerity of the Western world having learned, through the Holocaust, the toxic consequences of anti-Semitism, and to have relinquished it, so much so that Israel gets a free pass from much of the Western world to do as it pleases with the Palestinians because of concern that opposing it might be deemed anti-Semitic.

Netanyahu, and Goldberg, are products of an apocalyptic Jewish nationalism whose toxic effects are brilliantly critiqued by Avraham Burg who calls it “a fearful Judaism, a paranoid Zionism”. Burg makes clear in his book that evoking a constant fear of recurrent Holocausts has been an organizing principle of modern Israel, maintaining cohesion and support from Jewish communities abroad by making the specter of annihilation its daily bread. But as the majority of the world’s Jews live in relative safety (outside of Israel, and even within), that starts to become increasingly absurd. Young American Jews don’t feel that their gentile peers are about to turn on them and build a new Auschwitz, which is why identification with Israel is on the wane among young American Jews. Because survival-in-the-face-of-annihilation is the only narrative on offer from the Zionists, and as Burg asks, for what moral purpose have we survived? That’s not a question the likes of Netanyahu and Goldberg can answer.

What Goldberg and Netanyahu are asking us to believe is that the Iranian regime exists in order to destroy the Jews. And that doesn’t really stand up to the most cursory historical scrutiny — and the Israeli leaders know it. (Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently became the latest to admit that Iran is no existential threat to Israel, even as his Prime Minister continues to toss out hysterical rubbish about Iran being the reincarnation of Nazi Germany — needless to say, that’s a contention with which Iran’s 20,000 Jews don’t exactly concur.)

My suspicion is that the reason Goldberg paints Netanyahu as an apocalyptic nutter basing his strategic assessments on Biblical scare stories is the idea, popularized by Dennis Ross, among others, that if governments believe the Israelis might launch military strikes on Iran, they may be more inclined to adopt tougher sanctions. But as Israeli journalist Aluf Benn warned recently if you tell Israelis, no matter how cynically, that they’re facing an annihilationist threat, they may be quite prone to believe you — and expect you to do something drastic about it. Benn writes:

In his speeches in recent years, Netanyahu has compared Iran to Nazi Germany and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Adolf Hitler, and has spoken of the international community’s silence in the face of both threats - in 1938 and at present.

“The second Holocaust” of which Netanyahu warns will not feature ghettos, trains or gas chambers, but will be characterized by an attempt to eradicate the State of Israel. In his opinion, the Jewish people’s continued existence depends on the State of Israel’s continued existence… Netanyahu sees Iran as the latest enemy that has surfaced and threatens the survival of the Jewish collective, an enemy that must be repelled, with the help of others or on our own.

A country’s leaders are obligated by commitments they make in public, which often compel them to keep their promises…

Netanyahu also sees himself as a prophet at the gate, who saw the dangers of terror and extremist Islam before others did, and has now received a second chance to prove the justice of his claims and remove the threats to Israel and the Jewish people. A person with such historical awareness does not just spew out empty words about existential dangers, Holocaust and destruction. These words obligate him to take action. And his declarations to date have been so extreme that he will have difficulty retreating from them.

In other words, Netanyahu has embraced an extreme view that obliges the U.S., in particular, to restrain him, and prevent him from initiating hostilities that have far-reaching tragic consequences, not least for Israel. To the extent that Netanyahu is truly caught up in his own apocalyptic fevers, he is a dangerous man — after all, if you believe you’re a Jew facing Nazi Germany, then any diplomacy amounts to appeasement, and you feel obliged to act militarily. The fact that Iran has not actually initiated a program to build nuclear weapons is irrelevant; they always could, and that in itself is intolerable. Israel, right now, has no meaningful role to play in resolving the Iran nuclear standoff. Obama appears to have recognized that, last week dispatching CIA chief Leon Panetta to Israel to warn Netanyahu against launching any attack on Iran without first consulting the U.S. (If he asks, the answer will inevitably be no.) If Israel’s own messianic, apocalyptic cult leader is to be prevented from unleashing a catastrophe, the U.S. will have to effectively restrain him. Given the expectations he has created in his own public, doing so publicly may actually help Netanyahu behave more rationally.


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