The most embarrassing moment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the UN General Assembly last week was the mention of his father-in-law. Netanyahu offered a forced rationale for this: The hospitals that treated his elderly relatives at the end of their lives also treat Palestinians.
It's unconvincing and conjures up the ghost of a story told by Yaakov Kedmi, a former head of Nativ, the government agency responsible for maintaining contact with Soviet Jewry during the Cold War. On an official visit to Moscow, Netanyahu begged his counterpart at the time, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to mention Netanyahu's wife Sara in his official greeting. Chernomyrdin responded with lively astonishment but acceded to his plea.
This bit of personal trivia sheds some light on the forces that affect Israel's prime minister. To plumb the depths of his diplomatic views - after which you will worry no less - it's necessary to study the historical analogies that buttress his positions. Netanyahu isn't sensitive enough to the meaning of these analogies, nor does he learn the lessons applicable to the Iranian case.
As is well known, the focus of Netanyahu's arguments is the casus belli, or justification for war - a unilateral determination that a certain additional amount of progress toward a nuclear weapons capability will ignite an Israeli war against Iran. But if Netanyahu were serious, he would go home and declare a state of emergency and implement the economic policies suitable for such a state, before beginning the countdown to war in the summer of 2013.
That's what he would do domestically. But on the diplomatic front, Israel needs the permanent members of the UN Security Council to consent to its operation. Even if an American veto were assured, despite Netanyahu's provocations of U.S. President Barack Obama, the most it can do is block hostile action; diplomacy can't rely solely on such a veto. What's needed is a deal. And only American concessions - whether toward the Iranians or the Palestinians or on some completely unrelated global issue - can win cooperation from Russia and China.
But Netanyahu talks like an American who sees the Russians, or their Soviet forefathers, as enemies. Hence his simplistic use of the Cuban missile crisis as an example of resolution that countered a challenge with a challenge and convinced the aggressor to retreat.
What actually happened 50 years ago next month during this crisis teaches the opposite of the lesson Netanyahu sought to derive. Once you remove the propaganda and the mythos surrounding President John F. Kennedy, the confrontation ended in a tie, but with an advantage to the Soviets, rather than an American victory.
Before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev smuggled medium-range surface-to-surface missiles onto the island, which is no farther from Florida than Sidon is from Tel Aviv, the Kennedy administration had been engaged in a campaign to topple Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Moreover, Kennedy had stationed missiles in southern Europe that were capable of hitting Soviet territory. As the price of Khrushchev's capitulation on withdrawing his missiles from Cuba, Kennedy withdrew his missiles from Turkey and Italy while promising to end his efforts to oust the Communist regime in Havana.
The impression created by the worldwide sigh of relief that greeted the superpowers' agreement to avert a third world war - whose clearest expression occurred when Soviet ships were denied passage through a U.S. Navy blockade - was that Kennedy had defeated Khrushchev. This impression played a role in the decision by Khrushchev's colleagues in the Politburo to remove him two years later, accusing him of adventurism, rashness and loss of prestige.
But in practice, missiles bearing nuclear warheads mounted on submarines, intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and even bombers continued to threaten the American continent. The danger wasn't reduced; it was merely stripped of one element among many - and far from the most important one.
Via the Cuban analogy, Netanyahu is conveying to Tehran that in exchange for Iran's agreement to desist from overt progress toward nuclear weapons, America can obtain an equivalent Israeli concession. Thus if, for instance, Israel objects to doing its bit to disarm the Middle East of nuclear weapons, Washington would refrain from taking action over Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, as long as it doesn't show them off - a version of the "we will neither display nor test" nuclear weapons that Kennedy and his successors have been hearing from Israel since 1963.
Netanyahu's speech opens a dangerous breach in this direction. As usual with him, the verbal envelope, preferably illustrated, is more important than the substantive content.
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