by Gershom Gorenberg
The Israeli prime minister sees himself as a new Churchill, but the real lessons of statesmanship elude him.
In central London, in a basement beneath a thick slab of concrete, is the nerve center from which Winston Churchill led Britain during World War II. Today the Churchill War Rooms are a museum. When I visited recently, one prominently displayed quotation caught my eye. “No lover ever studied the whims of his mistress,” said Churchill, “as I did those of President Roosevelt.” I couldn’t help thinking how little my prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has learned from the man he claims to emulate.
What matters to Netanyahu about Churchill is that he warned of the danger that Hitler posed when others around him underestimated it. Netanyahu isn’t the only Israeli politician who sees himself as a latter-day Churchill for the same reason. Netanyahu’s sometimes-ally, sometimes-rival Avigdor Lieberman once told me in an interview that he identified with the British leader because before World War II, the “lovely, liberal, progressive people” threw the same insults at Churchill—warmonger, embittered, extremist—that such people in our time throw at him. Churchill was right; they were wrong.
But Netanyahu has pride of place among the would-be Churchills. Lots of people, especially in the unhinged American conservative media and among Republicans in Congress, keep confirming his pretentions to Churchill-hood. When Netanyahu came to Washington to address Congress in March—essentially to tell the world that Barack Obama is the new Neville Chamberlain—Speaker of the House John Boehner presented the prime minister with a bust of Churchill.
Lieberman’s comment, though, does explain the attraction of being Churchill. It’s based on a false syllogism: Churchill warned that Hitler was a madman bent on world domination, people mocked Churchill, yet history proved Churchill right; when I warn that [fill in the blank] is a new Hitler, people mock me; ergo, history will prove me right. What would earn you an “F” in a freshman logic class gets you standing ovations on Capitol Hill.
Issuing warnings is a bit like drilling for oil: When you hit the right spot, everyone admires your genius. All the other dry wells drilled by you and others are forgotten. Likewise, a host of mistaken warnings are mostly forgotten.
In the digital age, though, memory of misguesses is easier. A quick search through Netanyahu’s writings and speeches shows that he has been stuck in the late 1930s, with doom just a couple of years off, since he served as an Israeli diplomat in Washington in the early 1980s. In a 1993 book, Netanyahu wrote that the West Bank was as much part of Israel as the Sudetenland had been part of Czechoslovakia. When the Oslo Accord was announced later that year, he wrote that it would lead to a full-scale Arab invasion of Israel. Ergo, Yitzhak Rabin was Chamberlain. In 2002, Netanyahu—then a private citizen—testified before a U.S. congressional committee that Saddam Hussein was “hell-bent on achieving atomic bombs…as soon as he can.”
History is an enigmatic teacher. But the lesson that Netanyahu has gleaned from Churchill’s life—prophesy the worst and you’ll be vindicated—shows him to be a poor student. I suggest that there are two much clearer lessons—one positive, one negative—to be learned from Churchill.
The first is from Churchill’s courtship of FDR. Churchill was an imperious, impatient man who led a global empire and was the prime minister of an embattled country. As British historian Max Hastings has written, he “perceived with a clarity that eluded most of his fellow countryman” that victory was possible only with the help of the Yanks. He therefore took control of his own stormy nature and wooed America—and most of all its president. He wrote long personal letters to FDR; he treated Roosevelt’s emissaries as royalty. Rather than trying to enlist American help by portraying Britain on the edge of doom, he chose, in his own words, to present the British as “showing courage and boldness and prospects of success.”
Netanyahu is prime minister of a smaller power, one not at war but dependent on American arms and diplomacy. Rather than court the president, he has publicly joined forces with Obama’s political opponents. If Netanyahu had worked for Churchill, Churchill would have fired him. Churchill’s judgment, however, was sometimes wrong on the same grand scale as everything else he did. He believed in empire. As a novice politician, he praised “dominion over subject races.” Before World War II, he led the opposition to self-rule for India. As prime minister, he declared that he had not taken the post “in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” But—as Roosevelt understood and he did not—the age of colonialism was over. After the war, a different British government began the inevitable work of dismantling the empire.
Israel’s empire is much smaller. But if Netanyahu were interested in learning from Churchill’s mistakes, he might see that permanent Israeli rule over the Palestinians of the West Bank is no more sustainable, politically or morally, than British rule of the Raj was in Churchill’s day. He avoids seeing this by thinking of the West Bank as Sudetenland, his allies as his betrayers and his own fears as prophecies.
Netanyahu could learn a lot from Churchill. First he has to get over the delusion that he is Churchill.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author, most recently, of The Unmaking of Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.