March 7 (Bloomberg) -- Earlier this week, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited President Barack Obama in the White House. The two met together with their national-security advisers for 90 minutes, then had a 30-minute chat alone, then moved to a lunch together with various high officials of their governments.
Many words were exchanged during these meetings, but it turns out they all might have been superfluous. Netanyahu delivered his overriding message quite efficiently, and almost wordlessly, in the form of a gift to the president.
The gift he handed Obama was a copy of “Megillah of Esther,” the scroll that recounts the heroics of Queen Esther in ancient Persia. Tonight, Jews will read the whole Megillah -- as the saying goes -- in synagogues across the globe, to celebrate Purim, the apotheosis of the “They Tried to Kill Us, They Failed, Let’s Eat” category of Jewish holidays.
The scroll 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 Real Message
The prime minister of Israel 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 the plot. A further refinement of the message is: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt the plot, even if Barack Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.
From what I understand about the meeting between the two leaders, the prime minister stressed Israel’s sovereign right to act against plots forming against it. The president doesn’t disagree with this, of course -- he has repeatedly said Israel has the right to act on its own against the Iranian nuclear program -- but he had another message for Netanyahu. As Obama put it to me in an interview last week, the message is, “I have Israel’s back.”
In his press conference yesterday, Obama clarified that he wasn’t signaling to Israel his permission to attack Iran, but instead a more general feeling of solidarity. His words mean something. They don’t, however, mean enough to stop Netanyahu.
Before the summit between the two leaders, I thought Netanyahu would probably agree to delay an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear program in order to let the sanctions imposed by Obama -- in concert with much of the world -- work to convince Tehran that the nuclear path is a foolish one. But watching Netanyahu’s actions this week, and listening to his rhetoric, particularly before the annual meeting of the lobbying group Aipac, I’m more convinced that his timetable for action against Iran doesn’t align at all 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 at all shy about comparing Iran’s leaders to the Nazis -- in their intentions, if not yet in their capabilities. In the intervening three years, he eased up rhetorically just a bit, perhaps because he was unduly frightening Israelis who had been actual victims of actual Nazis.
Backed Into Corner
But earlier this week, before Aipac, Netanyahu once again made an explicit comparison between the Jewish condition today and the Jewish condition during World War II. This time, he made it somewhat differently: “My friends, this is not 1944,” he told Aipac. “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.”
And then he added, as if he wasn’t making himself clear, “We must always remain the masters of our own fate.”
Netanyahu has backed himself into a corner. If Iran is Nazi Germany -- but a Nazi Germany that the Jewish people are actually capable of fighting -- then no argument from Obama is going to keep Netanyahu from his destiny.
Shortly after the speech, the editor-in-chief 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. No amount of missiles falling on Tel Aviv, rising oil prices and economic crises matter when compared to genocide.”
There are only two possible interpretations of Netanyahu’s words and deeds: Either he is the world’s greatest bluffer, or he has set himself on a course to prevent a second Holocaust. Obama has marshaled some very strong arguments against precipitous action against Iran. But I hope he understands that, with Netanyahu, the Megillah was the message.
(Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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