For Netanyahu, there is no half-megillah

Posted: March 09, 2012

This week, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited President Obama in the White House. The two met, together with their national security advisers, then had a chat alone, then moved to a lunch with various high officials. Many words were exchanged, but they all might have been superfluous. Netanyahu delivered his overriding message quite efficiently, and almost wordlessly, in the form of a gift.

The gift he handed Obama was a copy of "Megillah of Esther," the scroll that recounts the heroics of Queen Esther in ancient Persia. This week, Jews across the globe read the whole megillah, as the saying goes, to celebrate Purim, the apotheosis of the "They Tried to Kill Us, They Failed, Let's Eat" category of Jewish holidays. It tells the story of the beautiful Esther and her cousin, the wise Mordechai, and how they plot, successfully, to keep the evil vizier Haman from murdering Persia's Jews.

The prime minister is many things, but subtle is not one of them. The message of Purim is: When the Jews see a murderous conspiracy forming against them, they will act to disrupt it. A further refinement of the message: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt it, even if Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.

From what I understand about the meeting, Netanyahu stressed Israel's right to act against hostile plots. The president doesn't disagree with this, of course - he has repeatedly said Israel has that right - but he had another message for Netanyahu. As he put it to me last week, it is, "I have Israel's back."

Obama later clarified that he wasn't signaling to Israel his permission to attack Iran, but rather a more general solidarity. His words mean something. They don't, however, mean enough to stop Netanyahu.

Before the summit, I thought Netanyahu would probably agree to delay an Israeli attack to let sanctions imposed by Obama convince Tehran that the nuclear path is foolish. But after watching and listening to Netanyahu this week, I'm more convinced that his timetable for action doesn't align with Obama's.

Shortly before Netanyahu took office three years ago, I sat with him in the Knesset and asked him to describe the Iranian threat. He described the regime in the harshest terms possible, as a "messianic apocalyptic cult" bent on the destruction of Israel. He was not shy about comparing Iran's leaders to the Nazis. He later eased up rhetorically a bit, perhaps because he was frightening Israelis who were victims of actual Nazis.

But earlier this week, Netanyahu once again made an explicit comparison between the Jewish condition today and during World War II. This time, he made it somewhat differently: "My friends, this is not 1944," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "Today we have a state of our own. The purpose of the Jewish state is to secure the Jewish future. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, against any threat."

Then he added, as if he hadn't made himself clear, "We must always remain the masters of our own fate."

Netanyahu has backed himself into a corner. If Iran is Nazi Germany, then no argument is going to keep Netanyahu from his destiny.

Shortly after the speech, the editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Aluf Benn, wrote: "The Holocaust talk has but one meaning - forcing Israel to go to war and strike the Iranians. Arguments against an attack, weighty as they may be, turn to smoke when put up against the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and Treblinka."

Either Netanyahu is the world's greatest bluffer, or he is on a course to prevent a second Holocaust. Obama has marshaled strong arguments against precipitous action. But I hope he understands that, with Netanyahu, the megillah was the message.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for the Atlantic

and a Bloomberg View columnist.

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