Defiant, but wrong.

Photographer: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The Desperation Behind Netanyahu's Holocaust Blunder

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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The latest round of violence in Israel was not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest problem this week, although it may yet spin out of control. Most of his week was devoted to damage control after he foolishly said it was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem during the Second World War and a father of Palestinian nationalism, who invented the idea of the Final Solution, in which the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.

Speaking to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu laid the blame for the extermination of one-third of the Jewish people not at the feet of the Nazis but, essentially, on the Palestinians. “Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jew,” Netanyahu said. “And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they'll all come here.’” Then, Netayanhu said, Hitler asked al-Husseini, “What should I do with them?” and said that the mufti suggested, “Burn them.”

QuickTake Two-State Solution

It was a ludicrous claim. There is no evidence whatsoever of that conversation having taken place, and as Dina Porat, chief historian for Yad Vashem noted, “all of the facts show that during Hitler and the mufti’s meeting, the ‘final solution’ was already under way.”

Netanyahu was correct that the mufti was an unabashed supporter of Hitler. And Netayahu, the son of a sometimes maverick historian, wasn't the first to tie al-Husseini to the Final Solution. But no credible historians suggest that the conversation Netanyahu described ever took place.

The gaffe prompted international ridicule, to which much of the Israeli press pointed with glee. YNet, Israel’s most popular news website, noted that the “son of the historian grossly misrepresents history.” Including screen shots from around the world, YNet also noted that Netanyahu’s gaffe had aroused condemnation from sources as varied as the U.K.'s Guardian, Reuters and the Independent, Italy’s La Republica, France’s Le Parisien, and the French Jewish paper Le Monde Juif. The U.S.'s Daily Beast, YNet noted, reported that Netanyahu had “absolved Hitler” of responsibility for the Holocaust.

Netanyahu took no less heat from the Israeli press. Haaretz listed a series of comedic reactions to Netanyahu’s absurd rendering of history. Israelis posted cartoons on Facebook suggesting (using Disney characters) that Hitler was under an evil spell. And the Times of Israel couldn’t help but point out that even German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded that Netanyahu not deflect responsibility for the Holocaust from the Germans. That Germany had to set Israel straight on Holocaust history struck many Israelis as a new low.

The White House, not surprisingly, used Netanyahu’s remarks as yet another opportunity to demand that the prime minister stop feeding the violence -- an accusation undoubtedly annoying to Netanyahu given that that is precisely what he has been accusing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of doing. An op-ed article on Ynet's English language site called his claim a “blatant historical lie.” Even the Jerusalem Post, often supportive of Netanyahu, cited the historian Porat’s suggestion that Netanyahu retract his accusation.

The question is why Netanyahu, undeniably intelligent and well-read, stumbled so badly. The Wall Street Journal quoted Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who offered the obvious Palestinian explanation. “Netanyahu hates Palestinians so much that he is willing to absolve Hitler of the murder of six million Jews,” he said. Netanyahu “should stop using this human tragedy to score points for his political end.”

Many Israelis couldn’t help but agree with Erekat -- the absurdity of Netanyahu's accusation appeared nothing less than the flailing of a desperate leader out of moves. If he refuses to negotiate with the Palestinians under fire, the violence will likely increase, perhaps spiraling out of control. (YNet posted a video interview with the head of the Tanzim, a militant Palestinian faction, threatening much more violence -- that Abbas will not be able to quell -- if Netanyahu does not give the Palestinians more cause for hope.) If Netanyahu does show flexibility, however, he knows that just as the First Intifada led to the Oslo accords and the Second Intifada to the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, he will be rewarding Palestinian violence and setting the stage for more.

Many Israelis think that Netanyahu ignored the Palestinian issue for years because he believed that the status quo could be maintained and he was singularly focused on Iran. He lost the Iran battle -- the approval of the deal he vigorously opposed is no longer in doubt.

It was thus particularly noteworthy that Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission came out in favor of the Iran deal this week, saying that it would probably prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear bomb. That announcement was another symbolic stab at the prime minster. Israelis, tired of the violence and worried about what may lie ahead, are increasingly muttering that Netanyahu fought the wrong battle and then lost it. He would be in political trouble were there anyone at all that Israelis trusted to navigate them out of this crisis. Fortunately for him, there is no one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net