Call him the Third Man. For all the talk about how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the Joint Meeting of Congress was a showdown with President Obama, I can’t help but sense a deeper drama. It was not merely a political contest between the leaders of two democracies. It was also a matter between the young boy Benjamin Netanyahu and one of the strongest and most learned Zionists in Israel’s history, his own father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu.
I didn’t know the father well. But in the late 1990s, I hosted a dinner for him with the staff of the Forward newspaper, which I was editing. His son had just been elected prime minister. The father was in town promoting a book. At dinner we were expecting, I later wrote, expressions of paternal pride. But the father of the new premier voiced doubts about whether his son was strong enough to lead the Jewish state.
It had to have been something, growing up with such a father, particularly after Benjamin’s older brother, Jonathan, was killed at Entebbe. Their father had been a disciple of the Zionist prophet Vladimir Jabotinsky, who sent him to America in 1940 to help spur an Allied response to the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry. In 1944, Benzion Netanyahu helped win a plank in the Republican national platform supporting Jewish statehood in the land of Israel.
The GOP became the first party to do so, though the Democrats quickly followed. That story has recently been told by historian Rafael Medoff in Tablet Magazine. In a way, Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in the Congress today was but the most dramatic phase of the struggle his father spurred to life here. It’s hard to imagine that his father would have failed to appreciate this feature of the drama.
Not to belittle the policy problem before the Congress. Netanyahu began with the story of Purim (which Jews worldwide will mark Wednesday evening, March 4), when the Jews rose up against a Persian tyrant, Haman, and characterized our current crisis as one in which “Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.” He called the people of Iran “heirs to one of the world’s great civilizations” but warned that it had been hijacked by “religious zealots.”
That’s similar to the way in which both conservatives and liberals — President Obama among them — have characterized our adversaries in the current conflict. Netanyahu sketched the strategic reach of Iran’s terror proxies. He warned against making a friend of Iran because it is also in a battle against the Islamic State, warning that in this “deadly game of thrones” the “enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”
Netanyahu’s dissection of the deal being written in Geneva centered on the prospect that thousands of centrifuges would be left spinning or on standby. He quoted the United Nations’ watchdog agency as warning as recently as Monday that Iran yet “refuses to come clean about its military nuclear program.” Then he moved to the sunset clauses in the pact being written, leaving us exposed in what for Israel and other nations is the “blink of an eye.”
President Obama, though his administration warned the premier against disclosing secrets, called the speech “nothing new.” Iran called it “boring and repetitive.” Yet the obvious purpose of the speech was to clarify, articulate principles, and inspire. His call for America to call the bluff of any Iranian effort to walk away reminds of President Reagan’s calling the Soviet bluff at Reykjavik. The Democrats then warned of a catastrophe, but the Kremlin camarilla came around.
Netanyahu reached deepest when he sketched the logic of Zionsim. “The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over,” he declared. Congress erupted in applause. “We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”
“Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand,” he said, before adding that he knows Israel does not stand alone but that “America stands with Israel.” Then he looked across the chamber to the bas-relief of Moses, who brought down the laws of God from Sinai, in whose light the American Founders labored. “Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them,” he quoted Moses as saying. No doubt had Benzion Netanyahu been alive this day, he’d have been the first to his feet in the final ovation.