Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. Photo by AFP
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On the wall of his office, behind his chair, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hung portraits of the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and the leader of Britain during World War II, Winston Churchill, so visitors will understand where Netanyahu is coming from - and where he wants to go.

The prime minister admires leaders who gave advance warning of dangers, even when majority opinion labeled them alarmists and gadflies. Herzl correctly identified violent anti-Semitism and Churchill warned of the rise of Nazism and the arming of Germany. Netanyahu likes to boast of his own warnings about terror, involving Iran and Katyushas in Ashkelon, which proved true.

Presumably the prime minister also draws inspiration from Churchill's political career, which barely sputtered along until he was called to save his country in the grim spring of 1940.

A new biography of Churchill during World War II, "Winston's War," describes the "greatest Briton of the 20th century," according to its author Max Hastings, as a sophisticated politician who was constantly occupied with nurturing his image, perpetuating his place in history and weakening his domestic rivals, even in the most difficult hours of the fight against Hitler.

Netanyahu undoubtedly hopes that if he fulfills the goal he has set for himself and saves Israel from the Iranian nuclear threat, all his past failures will be forgotten.

Hastings describes how Churchill's associates and political rivals, as well as ordinary citizens, thought it was necessary to take the management of the war out of the hands of the serial blunderer, and appoint someone else as defense minister, until the victory at El Alamein in North Africa and the U.S. Army's arrival at the front tipped the battle in the Allies' favor.

According to the book, even at the height of the national war effort, a stormy political argument raged in Britain, manifested in harsh questions in Parliament and a wave of strikes in essential industries. And like Netanyahu, Churchill temporized from one crisis to the next until his day came.

Churchill will be remembered for his encouraging speeches and his morale under bombardments by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. His main goal, however, to which he devoted himself from the day he came into power, was to bring the United States into the war on the British side. And this is also Netanyahu's goal. He identifies the Iran of today with Nazi Germany and wants to get the United States to strike at Iran, foil its nuclear program and crush its status as the rising regional power.

There is a consonance between the two men's challenges: In 2010, as in 1940, U.S. public opinion is strongly against an overseas military adventure. The Americans saw the British as colonialists fighting to save their empire, just as they see Israel as an occupying country fighting for its settlements in the West Bank.

Hastings relates that Churchill coined the term "summit" to describe a meeting of leaders of states. He believed his charming personality and his persuasive abilities could balance the power gaps between the struggling, broke and broken Britain, and secure and strong America. Therefore, he focused his foreign policy on an effort to get close to president Franklin Roosevelt and sway his position toward entering the war.

His arguments resembled Netanyahu's arguments today: Britain was fighting Nazi tyranny, just as Israel is trying to persuade the West it is in the forward position, in face of extremist Islam.

Churchill succeeded in getting military aid, arms and escorts for the supply convoys from Roosevelt. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have managed to parlay the implied threat of a Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations into unprecedented military cooperation.

Regional balance

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen visited Israel this week and met with Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi for the 13th time. Their predecessors met far less frequently, and it is clear these talks are not intended only for the American admiral to tell the Israeli lieutenant general not to attack.

An Israeli attack, even if it succeeds in destroying the nuclear installations in Iran, would not be able to tip the regional balance of power. Even a bombed Iran would remain strong and threaten the stability of the pro-America regimes in the oil-producing countries, in Jordan and in Egypt.

And here is the problem facing U.S. President Barack Obama: Can America afford to let the ayatollahs and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad control the supply of oil to the West through its increasing influence in the Middle East? Experienced Israeli experts are convinced the Americans have already come to terms with the Iranian bomb and their talk of stopping it is intended only for the record. But if this is the case, how will the Americans live with the strategic implications of a nuclear Iran controlling the world's energy supply?

Churchill did not succeed in persuading Roosevelt to enter the war. That happened only after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Japan's ally Hitler declared war on the United States. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor was preceded by a deep crisis between Tokyo and Washington, the climax of which was an American oil embargo on Japan.

The Japanese were pushed to provocation and attacked America - and this cost them the ruin of their country and its demotion to the status of a secondary power.

And what does Netanyahu want Obama to do today? What Roosevelt did to the Japanese: launch an embargo on the sale of refined petroleum products (gasoline, diesel fuel and airplane fuel ) essential to Iranian transportation and sanctions on the export of crude oil from Iran. The West is not there yet, but the recent United Nations Security Council resolution to expand the sanctions against Iran and the accompanying legislation in the American Congress are tightening the economic siege.

If this process continues, will the sanctions suffice to push Iran into a provocation that would elicit a knock-out counterblow from the Americans? Here is a precedent: In 1981 Israel attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor but the postponement that this achieved in Saddam Hussein's nuclear program did not suffice to undermine his country's regional clout.

Only after Saddam invaded Kuwait did America wake up and strike at him in the 1991 Gulf War. It took another war, in 2003, to erase the threat and Iraq's ascendancy once and for all.

Now a cold war is raging in the Middle East between America and Iran, through its allies in the region and in the international arena. Iran is arming Hezbollah and Hamas, and the United States is arming the IDF. Every day reports are published about the capture of spies in Lebanon and in Israel, about the launching of the Israeli spy satellite, about flotillas to Gaza and easements in the closure.

This week I received a note from the Home Front Command inviting me to replace my gas mask kit. The conflagration is getting closer, on the backdrop of the increased sanctions against Iran and the Iranian counter-boycott of Coca-Cola, Intel and companies owned by Jews.

This is the background to the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama this coming Tuesday. During this past year the prime minister has not succeeded in getting close to the president. Their relations were conducted in mutual wrangling. According to Hastings, this is how the meetings between Churchill and Roosevelt went - even if outwardly the two maintained a facade of friendship and partnership. Roosevelt wanted Britain to break up its empire, just as Obama wants an end to the occupation and the Jewish settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state - a heavy price for Churchill the colonialist and Netanyahu the rightist. But there is no other deal, nor can there be. India in exchange for Germany, and the West Bank in exchange for Iran.

Netanyahu would do well to read Hastings' book during his flight to Washington on Sunday, in order to get inspiration and advice. Anyway he knows the author well: In 1979 Hastings published the biography of the prime minister's slain elder brother, "Yoni: Hero of Entebbe."