Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s hero is another Prime Minister, Britain’s Winston Churchill. But wartime leaders need wars…. (More)

“The Fear of God” Part II: Israel, Iran, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

This week Morning Feature looks at ISIS, Israel and Iran, and conservative narratives of power. Yesterday we began with Rep. Peter King’s call for the U.S. to “put the fear of God” into ISIS. Today we consider Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republicans collaborating to scuttle negotiations and force a military showdown with Iran. Tomorrow we’ll explore why conservatives discuss power in terms of dominance and fear.

“A lone Cassandra warning against an imminent threat”

It’s no secret than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu idolizes Winston Churchill:

Behind his desk in his office here, above a shelf filled with the encyclopedia his father edited, sit two framed photographs of men Mr. Netanyahu admires for having been able to see “danger in time” and find ways to avert it: Winston Churchill, complete with hat, pinstripes and cigar, and a long-bearded Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

He argues that “history is a map” for policymakers, and his historical lens focuses on a single event:

“It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs,” Netanyahu told delegates to the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly, repeating the line several times, like a chorus, during his address. “Believe him and stop him,” the opposition leader said of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “This is what we must do. Everything else pales before this.”

This month he’ll address Congress for the third time, tying Churchill’s record, and Foreign Policy’s Thomas Stackpole calls it “Bibi’s Churchill Moment“:

Indeed, Netanyahu has made liberal use of the Nazi example as part of his campaign to undercut the negotiations with Iran, pitching himself as a lone Cassandra warning against an imminent threat to the entire world. Boehner’s invitation, no doubt, will give him another opportunity to do so.

“I fear the ‘fear’ that [he] is propagating”

Yet former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy sees his prime minister as the anti-Churchill:

“The prime minister views the British wartime prime minister [Churchill] as his role model – he prominently displays a photograph of the British leader in his office,” Halevy told Fathom journal in a recent interview, which was published in full Tuesday evening. “But, in truth, he is the absolute antithesis of Churchill; whereas Churchill projected power, confidence, strategy and absolute belief in Britain’s ultimate victory, Netanyahu repeatedly mentions the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, terror, anti-Semitism, isolation and despair as embodied in his frequent allusion to the ‘existential threat.’”

US wartime President Franklin Roosevelt famously said there is nothing to fear but fear itself, added Halevy. “I fear the ‘fear’ that the prime minister of Israel is propagating.”

Halevy also believes that hyping the Iran nuclear threat could encourage Iran to develop nuclear weapons:

Netanyahu commits a “terrible mistake” by defining the Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a matter of life or death, Halevy said, “because I do not believe there is an existential threat to Israel. I think the Iranians can cause us a lot of damage, if they succeed in one way or another to launch a nuclear device which will actually hit the ground here in Israel. But this in itself would not bring the state of Israel to an end.”

Speaking of Iran’s nuclear drive in those existential terms tells the Iranians that Israelis believe Tehran actually has the power to destroy the Jewish state, said Halevy, who spent most of his career in the Mossad, served also as Israel’s ambassador to the EU, and was national security adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon.

“It’s almost inviting them to do so, because they will say, ‘If the Israelis themselves believe that they are vulnerable and can be destroyed then that is sufficient basis to go and do it.’”

“Setting off a regional nuclear arms race”

Neoconservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin insists Iran threatens not only Israel but the entire region:

A conservative Middle East scholar recently commented to me, “Notice how Obama never says ‘Iran threatens Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.’ It’s always just about Israel.” Indeed, if one really wanted to mount a robust opposition militarily, politically and rhetorically, one would not portray the Iranian problem as “merely” a threat to Israel; one would have to concede it is an existential threat to all of our Arab allies.[…]

While he might imagine he can shut up Netanyahu or make it nearly impossible for the Jewish state to object to a done-deal with Iran on its nukes, Obama will not be able to dissuade Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia from ordering up their own nuclear weapons, thereby setting off a regional nuclear arms race. He might try to bully Israel, as his secretary of state did in truce talks to end the latest Gaza War, but Egypt won’t abide by a deal that strengthens the hand of Iranian-backed Hamas.

“It fails the Churchill test”

Yet even neoconservative Robert Kagan argued that Prime Minister Netanyahu should decline the invitation to address Congress:

It is not good for the American debate over Iran. At the end of the day, that debate has to rest on a consideration of U.S. interests, not those of Israel. The two sets of interests may be congruent in some instances, but they are never identical, because no two nations’ interests are ever identical. Israel conducts business with other countries that does not always serve U.S. foreign policy objectives. That is its prerogative. The United States is used to taking into account broader interests than its own, including those of its allies. Nevertheless, it, too, needs to make decisions based on its own calculations. Giving the Israeli prime minister the forum of a joint session to make Israel’s case on the Iran question might or might not be a good idea at a time of consensus between Congress and the president. Given that the United States is carrying out a vigorous and healthy debate over what to do about Iran, the intrusion of the Israeli prime minister only muddies the waters.
It fails the Churchill test. There was no greater friend of the United States than Winston Churchill and no better ally of the United States than Britain. Between 1939 and 1941, Churchill was desperate for deeper U.S. involvement in Britain’s life-and-death struggle with Nazi Germany. The British faced at least as dire a threat then as Israel faces today – arguably more dire. No one was inviting Churchill to speak to a joint session of Congress, of course, but would Churchill even have considered accepting such an invitation without the approval of President Franklin Roosevelt? When Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Mo., in 1946, he did so as a private citizen – and, as it happened, he was escorted to the speech by President Harry Truman.

“The effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy”

Two years ago this month, the former Vice-Chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff warned against the risks of saber-rattling with Iran:

Speaking at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, General James Cartwright said that the tools of diplomacy regarding Iran, including direct talks and further pressure, had not been exhausted. The threat of military action, he said, can be one component of an effort to press for a negotiated solution, but must be weighed against the danger of provoking an accidental war.

Cartwright explained that, if deterrence is the objective with Iran, then it is very important to first know how to manage the “art of deterrence.” Too strong of a “force posture” could instead have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually incite escalation of conflict in the region.

By pushing Congress to sabotage negotiations and selectively leaking the proposals being discussed, Prime Minister Netanyahu appears willing to do exactly that.

Tomorrow we’ll see how his approach – like the conservative bombast about ISIS – fits a narrow and dangerous narrative of power.


Happy Friday!