Analysis: Netanyahu's speech to Congress is Purim on the Potomac

Netanyahu views that his destiny is to protect the Jewish state, and -- by extension -- the future of the Jews. In his mind, this is why he was fated to come to power. Nothing less.

March 2, 2015 22:11
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)


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When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress on Tuesday, he will likely make reference to Purim, that holiday that will begin Wednesday night commemorating the Jews' salvation from the hands of Haman and the Persians thousands of years ago.

How could he not; it's a slam dunk.

Then the Persians wanted to destroy the Jews; today the Persians want to destroy the state of the Jews. Same peoples, same tired story line.

And in this modern day version of the Biblical Book of Esther that many of the US legislators he will be speaking to are familiar with from their Sunday school days,  Netanyahu -- at least judging from his rhetoric  over the last few weeks -- sees himself cast as a combination of Mordechai and Esther.

Mordechai was the character in the Book of Esther who recognized the threats to his people in real time; Esther the one who -- through the right words, at the right time, in the right situation  -- took action to thwart them.  Netanyahu sees himself playing both roles.

In his mind he is the one who, going back to his first speech to Congress in 1996 where he already identified the danger of a nuclear Iran as the biggest threat facing Israel, is the Mordechai character. He is also the one lobbying the King, in this case US President Barack Obama in the role of King  Ahashverush, to get him to squelch the Persian plot against the Jews.

One of the most poignant moments in the Book of Esther comes toward the end of Chapter 4, when Mordechai has alerted Esther to the dangers hovering above the Jews, and  entreats her to plead her people's case before the King.  Her answer was to hem-and-haw a bit and say she was not invited to meet the King, and those who approach him without being invited face death.

Mordechai's reply: "If you remain silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance for the Jews will appear from some other quarter, but you and your father's house will perish. Who knows, perhaps it is for such a time as this that you have come to your royal position."

Netanyahu's critics say this speech is all about the elections.  But Judging from everything that Netanyahu has said over the years, not just for this election cycle, he views that this -- protecting his people and his country from destruction -- is the reason he came to power. 

Other prime ministers, such as Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres, viewed their reason for rule as becoming The Peacemaker. Netanyahu never cast himself in that role.   He views that his destiny is  to protect the Jewish state, and -- by extension -- the future of the Jews. In his mind, this is why he was fated to come to power. Nothing less.

Netanyahu, the best English orator Israel has ever had at its helm, also believes -- much like Obama -- in the power of words.  That he is going forward with a speech that he obviously knows will severely complicate his life with Obama until the end of the President's term, indicates that he -- as sources close to him have said -- believes in the possibility that words can convince key policy makers that the concessions being offered to Iran are much too much.

Esther saved the  Jewish people not through a great military achievement, but with daring to speak to the King. Netanyahu seems to  see himself playing a similar role.

It is worth noting that in recent days Netanyahu, including Monday in his address to AIPAC, has noted other Israeli Prime Ministers who at key crossroads have been willing to take action even when it ran contrary to US policy.

Netanyahu has mentioned David Ben-Gurion, who declared statehood in 1948, even though the US State Department was adamantly opposed.  He has mentioned Levi Eshkol, who took preemptive action in June 1967 against the Egyptians, even though the US president at the time, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was firmly against.  He mentioned Menachem Begin, who took out the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 even though then president Ronald Reagan was so incensed at the move that he temporarily halted the delivery of fighter planes to Israel.  And he cited Ariel Sharon, who continued with Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, even when president George W. Bush called on him to stop.

(Netanyahu also could have mentioned Ehud Olmert, who -- according to foreign reports -- issued the order in 2007 to take out a Syrian nuclear facility, even though the US preferred to deal with the matter at the UN).

By raising these cases, Netanyhau is saying that the prime minister is joining the ranks of other Israeli premiers who took brave action even if it risked a rocky patch in the relationship with the US.

But the parallels are far from perfect.  Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Begin and Sharon all took concrete actions to further what they viewed as vital Israeli interests, even if these ran up against American wishes. What Netanyahu is doing is giving a speech -- not ordering a military strike.

But Netanyahu  has shown over his long career that he believes in the efficacy of the speech, and how the right words, at the right time, delivered in the right way, can change history. One precedent he is leaning on is the  Book of Esther.

Some are likening Netanyahu's  speech to Congress as a dual with Obama and calling it High Noon. Considering the season, however, it may be more apt  to call it Purim on the Potomac.

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