Churchill and his disciple
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an admirer of Winston Churchill and views him as a role model, not only because of the cigar smoking, the love of history and the hobnobbing with millionaires. Netanyahu admires Churchill because of his warning against the rise of the Nazis, which isolated Churchill politically and branded him as an extremist warmonger during Britain's conciliatory period toward Hitler. Netanyahu identifies with the feeling of being a small minority that is right, warning against the danger while being ignored by the majority, which goes about enjoying itself until he is called from the political sidelines to save his people.
Netanyahu compared himself to Churchill when he opposed the Oslo Accords and earned the hostility of the Israeli "elites" who supported the Oslo process. He saw his election in 1996 as a mission to save the nation and stop Oslo, as Churchill was appointed prime minister after his dark prophecies came true in World War II.
During his decade out of power, Netanyahu found his Nazi Germany in Iran. He stood at the head of the people warning against the terror of Iranian nuclear power in the face of the indifference of the Israeli public and international community. When he declared two years ago that "the year is 1938 and Iran is Germany," the hidden message was "Ahmadinejad is Hitler and I am Churchill." When he returned to power, thwarting the Iranian threat was for Netanyahu a central aim.
The wars in Lebanon and Gaza helped Netanyahu adopt another aspect of the Churchill legacy, the bombings of German cities. When Israel is criticized for bombing Beirut and Gaza, Netanyahu responds by mentioning Dresden and Hamburg. He commonly says Britain and the United States killed many more German civilians during World War II than vice versa, yet it is clear who was the aggressor and who was the justified side in that war. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu mentioned how Churchill had warned that he was not heeded until the threat actually materialized, and alluded to him as the bomber of Dresden.
Churchill was great as a leader in war and an artist in public relations and marshaling public opinion. But even the greatest leader cannot tilt the balance of power only by virtue of his charisma. Churchill understood this well and did not delude himself that Britain alone would overcome Hitler. So he made enormous efforts to bring the United States into the war.
Like Netanyahu, Churchill also believed in "if they give, they'll get" as a fundamental principle of statecraft. The American support he received came at a price: the dismantling of the British Empire. Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed British colonialism, and in his first meeting with Churchill, when the United States was helping Britain but had not yet entered the war, the two signed the Atlantic Charter, which promised self-government for all peoples.
The surrender of the empire was not easy for Churchill, who deeply opposed the liberation of the colonies, especially granting independence to India. He called Mahatma Ghandi "a seditious ... lawyer, now posing as a fakir ... striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace." But that was when Britain was at the height of its power. As it lay exhausted and wounded before the Nazi enemy, and Churchill desperately needed American assistance, he retreated from his position. Three months after Pearl Harbor, Churchill dispatched the popular minister Stafford Cripps to India with a proposal for phased independence in exchange for Indian support for the war against the Nazis and Japanese.
The mission failed - Ghandi and the Hindi leaders refused to support Britain, and only the Muslims agreed - but the offer of independence could not be withdrawn. "India is lost," Churchill said at the end of the war. Only his defeat in the elections after the war released Churchill from taking apart the his beloved empire with his own two hands.
In Netanyahu's view, the Iranian threat against Israel resembles the Nazi threat on Britain. Like Churchill, Netanyahu hopes for American help to lift the threat; like Roosevelt, U.S. President Barack Obama demands the dismantling of Israel's little empire in the territories and the liberation of the Palestinians from occupation. It will be interesting to see whether Netanyahu also learns this lesson from the leader he admires, or whether the analogy ends with bombing.