Previously in this series on Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech: "Is It 1938?", "The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster," "The 'Existential' Chronicles Go On," "On Existential Threats," and yesterday's roundup of reader mail.
1) "The historical equivalent of hollering." From a history professor at a university in the Southwest:
I am no fan of Bibi's, but I'd also like to note that this ahistorical use of the past makes historians' teeth itch. (I'll just blithely speak for the whole profession.) More centrally, both our political leadership and Israel's desperately need to develop a wider grasp of that past.
History offers up a depressingly vast number of small states perceiving danger from larger, well-armed, unpredictable neighbors. It provides at least that many examples of threats to continued Jewish existence in a given region. The constant reiteration of this particular event [the Nazi-era Holocaust] achieves little more than dumbing down the discourse: it's the historical equivalent of hollering.
To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the Holocaust is not particularly good to think with. Its extremity serves as a bludgeon. Its use is nearly always intended to cut off debate or critique, to seize the moral high ground, and ideally to incite panic. I don't know the best response to the Iranian threat, which I take seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpful—and if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.
Ask your average historian whether the past repeats itself. She'll tell you it doesn't -- only that it sometimes rhymes. The past can be a rich source of insight, surely. But much of what we ask our students to do centers around analyzing the complex causes of immensely complicated events. There are almost always at least three solid ways to interpret any given historical question. In short, the past is not a simplistic instruction manual for the present. It almost never provides any kind of predictive template.
There are other good reasons to argue with Binyamin Netanyahu beyond his misuse of the past. But since his perception of Iran is based at least in part on that misuse, I stand by my reason.
2) The modern history that got left out of the speech. Gary Sick, of Columbia University, has studied Iranian politics and policy for more than 40 years. After Netanyahu's speech he wrote an assessment, including its strength as a "barn burner of a campaign speech" for the Israeli elections, but also its weakness as a studiously misleading description of the real state of negotiations with Iran.
You don’t want to include anything that will detract from your central purpose [of campaigning in Israel, where the speech came on at 6pm local time]. So, what did Netanyahu leave out of his speech?
1. Iran has dramatically reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium. Remember Bibi’s cartoon bomb that was going to go off last summer? Well, it has been drained of fuel, and that will probably continue to be true indefinitely. No mention.
2. Inspections will continue long after the nominal 10-year point, contrary to his claim that everything expires in ten years. No mention.
3. The heavy water reactor at Arak will be permanently modified, so it produces near zero plutonium. Not only did he not mention it, but he listed the reactor and plutonium as one of his threats.
4. His repeated assertion that Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons ignores the judgment “with high confidence” of both American and Israeli intelligence that Iran has taken no decision to build nuclear weapons. It also contradicts the repeated findings of the IAEA that no materials have been diverted for military purposes.
5. All the major countries of the world are co-negotiators with the United States, so a U.S. congressional intervention that killed the deal will not only affect us but all of our major allies. If we stiff them, there is no reason to believe the international sanctions will hold for long. No mention.
Are these simply oversights in the interests of time? Why did he leave out only the facts that cast doubt on his central thesis?
Read all of Gary Sick's piece; compare it with Netanyahu's end-days warnings about the emerging "bad deal"; and while you're at it think back to people who were telling you in 2002 and early 2003 to be skeptical of the end-days warnings about Saddam Hussein's imminent and existential threat to the world.
3) "It will always be 1938." From a reader in Massachusetts who identifies himself as Jewish:
Here is a simpler answer to your "Central Question" [of whether it's 1938 again] Bibi is basically stating that it will always be 1938 for Israel and the Jews of the world.
Here's the thing: I cannot but see that Rabin understood this when it came to the relationship of Israel with its neighbors, while Sharon came to appreciate it in terms of internal demographics, so each took tremendous risks to rebalance these unsustainable circumstances in a meaningful and durable way. Just to be clear, I don't think that Sharon was as constructive as Rabin, but he was probably sincere in his calculus.
When has Netanyahu ever done anything that comes close to this?
In Bibi's mind, does Israel—and do the Jewish people—lose a significant aspect of their ("our") place in the world if the threat of annihilation is not present? He can say that "they" would like to live in peace with all the other peoples of the world, but what would it take from Iran—or Egypt (or Russia, for that matter)—in order to permanently eliminate the sense that Israel is potentially facing an Existential Threat? In my humble opinion, nothing could.
4) This note comes from a reader in Germany, and I am presenting it with original spelling. In context it's relevant to point out that Germany has wrestled with its own cataclysmic Nazi-era history much more earnestly than Japan has dealt with its Imperial-era record, China with its Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, or the United States with its treatment of Native American populations and its ongoing racial injustices. He writes:
I want to add the following thought:
(I am German)
What does the Netanyahu statement(s) about the possible prospect of Iran developing a nuclear military capability tell us? I understand, that the ruling political elite of Israel can’t imagine to live peacefully with it’s neighbours, including Iran, Iraque, if Israel does not have the military dominance including the option to annihilate a perceived opponent. If there might develop a situation in which a country, f.e. Iran, has the same nuclear option against Israel, this would be seen as inacceptable and an existential threat.
Even if the picture of Nazi-Germany in 1938 obviously does not apply, one might be inclined to look for some parallel in history. With my limited knowledge, I can only find the late 1940s and the political and military opposition of USA and the Sowjet Union. There was a time where the USA had a –proven- nuclear capability and the SU did not. Yet it did not immediately blow the world to pieces, when the Sowjets also developed the nuclear option. The military capabilities were just leveled. Cold war started and more than once came very close to become a hot one—but both learned and knew to avoid it, finally.
A leveled military stand-off is unacceptable for Israel? Well, then what? To my knowledge, there is not a single serious analyst, who would state, that a nuclear Iran immediately will start a lot of missiles to destroy Israel completely. Israel (and Iran) would “only” have to adopt a similar political process at eye-level – that would be the “unacceptable” new experience.
This view of Israel’s relationship to it’s neighbouring countries by the present political leadership is deeply troubling. South Korea is accepting the situation of a nuclear threat certainly for the sole reason of the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States—otherwise I would guess it would take long for South Korea to establish some nuclear option as well.
Why should the nations around Israel permanently accept the nuclear threat of Israel with no option on their side—since there certainly is no nuclear umbrella whatsoever for them, neither by USA, Russia, China, India nor Pakistan ?