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The real reason Netanyahu is so hawkish on Iran

Netanyahu speaks to Congress on Iran.
Netanyahu speaks to Congress on Iran.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

It's pretty easy to understand why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is so adamantly opposed to a nuclear Iran: Iran is hostile toward Israel and, if it got a bomb, would pose a greater threat than it already does. But, for many Americans, the vehemence of Netanyahu's opposition is harder to understand. Why does he seem to oppose even a nuclear deal that would allow Iran moderate nuclear enrichment capability — and thus seems willing to risk war?

"Netanyahu's position is extreme and unworkable: Iran should yield completely, or there will be war," Mother Jones' David Corn wrote in response to Netanyahu's speech. Airstrikes on Iran's nuclear program would at best delay Iran's program and could risk sparking a wider war. Netanyahu's critics find the fact that he could even contemplate them dangerous and baffling.

But, from a certain kind of Israeli perspective, Netanyahu's stance isn't incomprehensible. To understand Netanyahu's seemingly extreme position, you need to grasp his earnestly held view that one of Israel's fundamental purposes is to guarantee that Jews, always and forever, will be able to protect themselves from harm.

In this view, the mere existence of the possibility for Iran's anti-Israel leaders to take further steps toward a nuclear bomb jeopardizes that ability of Israel's Jews to stand on their own, and thus poses an unacceptable threat. The fact that Iran would have the potential capability to destroy Israel — even if Tehran did not intend to follow through — means that Jews would not control their own destiny. Netanyahu will not allow that to happen.

To understand Netanyahu's thinking here, take a look back at the 2000 edition of his book A Durable Peace. In the book, Netanyahu argues that the dichotomy between power and powerlessness is a defining feature of Jewish history, going back millennia.

"The question of Jewish powerlessness is central to the traumatic experience of the Jewish people," Netanyahu writes, and "it is the obverse side of the question of Jewish power."

Before the modern state of Israel, Netanyahu writes, Jews had forgotten their ancient heritage as a self-reliant warrior people. "As opposed to the image of the Jew during most of the modern period, Jews in ancient times were not known as docile victims," he argues. "To the contrary, they were renowned for possessing the exact opposite qualities of national character."

The Jewish diaspora, by coming under non-Jewish governments, gradually broke Jewish strength: "once the Jews were driven into exile, and became a collection of dispersed communities in the medieval world, they were gradually deprived of all the conditions necessary for self-defense."

In Netanyahu's view, this state of weakness helped create the conditions for centuries of persecution — culminating in the Holocaust. A strong Israel is, in this view, the only way to prevent that from happening again.

"The rise of Israel has been a conscious attempt to wrest redemption from the grip of unrelenting agony," Netanyahu writes. "A distinguishing feature of many Jews raised in Israel is the absence of the sense of personal insecurity that accompanies many Jews in the Diaspora, even the most successful ones."

A number of diaspora Jews, particularly those in the US, might dispute Netanyahu's assertion that they feel a sense of "personal insecurity" based on their identity. But the point is that Netanyahu believes this, and believes the only answer is a Jewish state able to fully control its own self-defense.

A nuclear-capable Iran would wrest this hard won security away from Jews. A regime that spouts eliminationist anti-Semitism would have the ability to destroy the Jewish state. While there is strong reason to doubt Tehran intends this, or would ever actually follow through, in many ways intent is not the point — the mere ability is threat enough.

This isn't just rhetoric. Netanyahu absorbed ideas like these from his father (a famous scholar of the Inquisition) and deeply believes them. "He has a deep sense of his role in Jewish history," Michael Oren, Israel's former ambassador to the United States, told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in 2010.

This helps explain why Netanyahu wouldn't trust the United States to guarantee Israel's security against Iran. He deeply, fundamentally believes that the Jewish state can only count on itself to protect the Jewish people.

Critics are right to point out that there are deep strategic flaws with Netanyahu's apparent willingness to risk what would be a horribly painful war with Iran just to stop it from nuclear development that it would almost certainly never use against Israel. But looking at the ideology that informs Netanyahu's view of Israel's role in Jewish history — whether you agree or disagree with his interpretation — helps show how he could arrive at a policy that might seem otherwise unthinkable.

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