Each year on Purim we celebrate the miraculous story of the Jews of Persia, saved from imminent destruction by a wicked anti-Semite long ago. This year on Purim we focus once again on Persia (now Iran) and wonder if another enemy will act against the Jewish people, as he has threatened.
Who will intercede to stop him? And how?
The most dramatic moments of the Megillah reading are when Queen Esther puts her life on the line in pleading with the Persian king to prevent Haman from carrying out his plot to kill the Jews. The beautiful queen is a supplicant, personally powerless and relying on her intimate relationship with the king.
Times have changed. In 2015, the Jewish people have a state of their own, thank God, and though its security is under constant threat, it has emerged as a major force in the Mideast. So when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu defied U.S. protocol, and in effect President Obama, to speak out in Congress against the Iran deal, he was displaying his independence.
On the eve of Israeli elections he spoke to multiple audiences, perhaps most of all hoping to sway his countrymen as well as Washington decision makers and the American people.
“We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves,” Netanyahu declared near the end of his dramatic speech Tuesday. “For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”
But the Israeli leader was in Washington, in part, as petitioner, well aware that his country greatly relies on the strategic, diplomatic and financial support of its one major ally in the world, the U.S. And in both his opening and closing remarks, he emphasized the shared “common destiny” of the two democracies.
But the ugly and persistent controversy over Netanyahu’s decision to come to Congress and speak out against the administration’s Iran negotiating position has underscored that Israel and the U.S. have increasingly divergent views about how to deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran. More than the reflection of a dysfunctional personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, the public feud is about two different worldviews, with each leader seeing the other as naïve.
The president is a student of pragmatism. Committed to reducing America’s military presence in the Arab world after long, deeply costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is loath to engage in a potential war with Iran. His Western logic insists that an economically crippled Iran will curtail its nuclear ambitions in return for the lifting of sanctions. And by the time the proposed decade-long agreement ends, the Islamic fundamentalists ruling the country may well be out of power.
It is foolish, he believes, for Netanyahu to cling to a maximalist position on Iran, insisting that its nuclear program be dismantled. The result, Obama suggests, would be that Iran walks away from the table and doubles its efforts to produce a bomb.
The Israeli prime minister, on the other hand, is a student of history. Seared with the memory of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish over the centuries, and most recently with the lessons of the Holocaust, when millions of Jews were slaughtered while the world remained passive, he is unwilling to accept Iran’s promises. He notes that even as it negotiates with the U.S. and other world powers, Tehran seeks to expand its global network of terror and Islamic hegemony while threatening to annihilate Israel. It is Obama, he believes, who is too trusting. According to Netanyahu, maintaining sanctions, combined with the threat of military actions, is the way to prevent Iran from threatening not only Israel but also the region and the Western world.
No fair-minded observer could dismiss the Israeli leader’s fears of a war down the road, nor could one reject outright the president’s effort to avoid risking an imminent military confrontation. But as deadlines near, emotions — and angry rhetoric — have risen to dangerous levels. Bottom line, Netanyahu no longer seems to believe Obama’s pledge over the years that “we have your back.” Still, as dozens of Democrats stayed away from the speech on Tuesday, it appears that Netanyahu hurt his cause — convincing Congress to maintain and even tighten sanctions — by coming to Capitol Hill.
In ancient Persia, Esther, the defender of the Jews, was successful because of her intimate relationship with the king. Today, Netanyahu, self-defined defender of the Jews, seeks to achieve his objective while jeopardizing his relationship with the president.
The Israeli leader promised at the conclusion of his speech that Israel will stand “even if Israel has to stand alone.”
Let’s hope his actions have not made that necessary.