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Netanyahu’s Churchill Syndrome

Netanyahu Levine.jpg
David Levine
Benjamin Netanyahu

Not long into Barack Obama’s second term, a rumor took flight suggesting that one of his first acts as president in 2009 had been to banish a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. The story as circulated held that while George W. Bush had wanted the likeness of the great British wartime leader close at hand, his successor—doubtless motivated by an inherited Kenyan resentment of the old colonial overlord—had packed up the Churchill bust and returned it to the British embassy with an unspoken message of, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

This tale lingered for a while, recycled by columnist Charles Krauthammer among others, until the presidential press secretary was compelled to publish a blog post explaining that the old bulldog had not been exiled from the White House at all: indeed, a bronze cast of his head remained in prime position in the president’s private residence. Whitehouse.gov even reproduced a photo of Obama and his British counterpart inspecting the statue, just to settle the matter once and for all.

The initial story, too good to check, surely appealed to Krauthammer and others because it seemed to reflect what they saw as a political truth: that while Bush had been an heir to Churchill, Obama was the descendant of the political dwarves Churchill had defeated. In this telling, Obama was an appeaser, one of those too ready to bend the knee to the brutes and dictators who can only be repelled by resilience, resolve, and unwavering force.

On Tuesday, Capitol Hill hosted the man who has made that comparison his own. The Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not mention Churchill by name, just as his explicit references to the US president were appreciative. But the logical thrust of his address to Congress, interrupted by nearly two dozen ovations, could not have been clearer. Once again, the world was menaced by an evil regime set on both the annihilation of the Jewish people and the crushing of civilization. Netanyahu could see this danger and was firm in the face of it. But standing in his way was a leader bent on placating the enemy rather than defeating it. Weak, naive Obama was poised to offer Iran a deal, unable to see that any such accord would only delay the moment of inevitable and necessary confrontation. “That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” the Israeli leader thundered. “It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.” If Obama insisted on being Neville Chamberlain, well, regrettably, it would fall to Netanyahu to be Churchill.

Much has been made of the various influences on Prime Minister Netanyahu. A thesis could be written—perhaps by a scholar of psychology rather than politics—arguing that he sits at the center of a triangle formed by his father, his wife, and his brother. His father, Benzion, who died, aged 102, in 2012, served as private secretary to Vladimir Jabotinsky—the founder of Revisionist Zionism, the maximalist creed that insisted on a Jewish state holding the entire, biblically-defined Land of Israel (which would include the West Bank, Gaza and all of what is now Jordan). His wife, Sara, is regularly cast by the Israeli media as a harridan with a sense of entitlement, gleefully regarding the taxpayers’ money as her own, while his brother Yonatan Netanyahu was the Israeli commander of the 1976 Entebbe raid, the hero who lost his life rescuing one hundred hostages, most of them Israelis or Jews.

Nevertheless, the most obvious mentor is the one Bibi never met. Netanyahu has been re-enacting the Churchill story for more than two decades: as a junior member of the Knesset, he was warning that Iran was just “three to five years” away from a nuclear bomb back in 1992. He’s sounded the same alarm at intervals ever since. We are always on the brink, he is always the lone wise man, able to hear the rumble of the gathering storm.

The great value of Churchill syndrome to one who suffers from it is that it is self-vindicating. The more Netanyahu’s warnings of the Tehran menace are dismissed, the greater his similarity to the cigar-chomping seer who was fatefully ignored in the 1930s. True, even Israel’s own defense and intelligence chiefs think Netanyahu is wrong on Tehran—the former Mossad boss Meir Dagan has described the prime minister’s approach as “stupid”—but weren’t the British brass similarly misguided about Hitler?

On this logic, Obama can argue forcefully that the accord he is seeking to broker will make Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear arms less likely than it is now—less likely than it would be even if Iran were to come under military assault—but it does no good. Bibi sees Obama either as Chamberlain or as Franklin Roosevelt, the detached US leader staying out of a just war into which destiny will drag him eventually.

This was the story Netanyahu told, and told with such brio, to Congress on Tuesday. In the process, he produced both a handy set of TV images to be used ahead of Israel’s election on March 17, showing him as the courageous defender of his nation on the world stage, and a series of talking points that will be stored in temperature-controlled facilities, ready to be deployed by the Fox-GOP axis of opposition if and when Obama makes a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. His knack for simplifying a complex case into pithy, bumper-sticker slogans had not deserted him: “When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.” Or: “To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but lose the war. We can’t let that happen.” When the time comes to thwart what Obama hopes will be his legacy foreign policy achievement, Republicans will turn to this speech as the guiding text. (The Saudis, who are a rare match for Bibi when it comes to anti-Iranian hawkishness, also liked it.)

But for plenty of Israelis—and Jews watching around the world—the address was a disaster. It jeopardized what many in Israel regard as the bedrock of Israeli security: bipartisan US support. With some fifty Democrats staying away, this could prove to be the moment when Israel starts to become just another issue on which the two parties disagree. That made some Jews anxious. Others simply squirmed with discomfort at the cavalier use and abuse of cherished Jewish symbols. The festival of Purim, Moses, Elie Wiesel—Netanyahu pressed all of them into service. (Admittedly, Wiesel’s standing is not quite what it was.)

None of this bothers Bibi. Isolation only convinces him he’s right. Much as he loves the adoration of Congress, which has become a home venue, the hatred of his enemies makes him stronger. Because it makes him more like you know who.

As if to confirm the Israeli PM’s historical fantasy, his host, House Speaker John Boehner—whose unilateral invitation triggered the whole controversy— presented him with a parting gift, a statue of the only world leader besides Netanyahu to have been granted the privilege of speaking to Congress three times. The Israeli prime minister left Washington with his very own bust of Winston Churchill.