They Are Afraid

Netanyahu's show was indeed fascinating. And frightening. "Now is 1938, Iran is Germany, and it is about to arm itself with nuclear weapons."

Shmuel Rosner
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Shmuel Rosner

The speech was summed up well in three words by the chair of the afternoon session, Kathy Manning of the United Jewish Communities of America (UJC). It was, she said, "fascinating and scary." Still dancing in the heads of those present at the large conference hall, full to the last chair, was the image of Likud Chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu, gazing straight out at them from the gigantic video screens, stern, threatening, again and again and again: "It is 1938, Iran is Germany, and it is about to arm itself with nuclear weapons."

This was one of Netanyahu's excellent speeches. Among those present in the hall, many of them quite far from being his admirers, there was near consensus that this was the best speech of all. Where is he and where is Ariel Sharon, who reads from the page, where is he and where is the bureaucratic Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and where is the dry Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, whose speech on Sunday left large bald spots of empty chairs.

Netanyahu's show was indeed fascinating. And frightening. "Now is 1938, Iran is Germany, and it is about to arm itself with nuclear weapons."

Thus, without prior warning, the Israeli barometer has soared to 10 on the panic scale. Ten out of 10. The warnings came in rapid succession from Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, Olmert and Netanyahu. At the General Assembly, the annual convention of the UJC, which was almost entirely devoted to Israel, they spoke about the last war, in Lebanon, but were thinking scary thoughts about other wars.

After all, if it is indeed 1938 now, and Iran is Germany, what should the warned citizens do with this information, and what will the American Jews who love Israel to whom Netanyahu spoke do? Where will they take this fear? And where has Rabbi Nachman disappeared to just when we need him?

Such anxiety is a double-edged sword. Perhaps it will spur action, perhaps it will spur flight.

Anyone who reinforces it should consider carefully the benefits versus damages: Perhaps it will cause American statesmen to realize that if they do not make more of an effort, they will force Israel to act, but perhaps they will also convince the Iranian president that he is getting close to achieving his aims without having to fire even one deadly barrage. Perhaps Sneh was right when he warned of the possibility of the flight of Israeli citizens, but what good will his being right do if in his own remarks he only increased the likelihood of such a scenario?

And what exactly are leaders referring to when they routinely warn of the Iranian threat? Is this a planned, coordinated warning to push the world to act? It would be nice to think so, but sometimes it seems as though this is an outburst that is not entirely under control.

Certainly not entirely calculated. It is unclear what happened during the past week that justifies these statements. The diplomatic pressure is continuing as usual, although without achievements, but this was also the case a month ago and will undoubtedly also be the case in the coming months. Next week, the United States will again ask the International Atomic Energy Agency to take steps. A new report from the agency will state what everyone knows: Iran is not stopping, it is not slowing down, and it is continuing to progress toward its desired goal.

In Netanyahu's case, it appears that the timing is connected to his familiarity with the ins and outs of the American arena.

On Monday, Netanyahu praised the Americans for sticking to their formula of "we won't let 'em," but it was evident that he had lost his belief in the chance that they will really act. Perhaps he is comparing himself to Winston Churchill, one of whose speeches delivered in 1935, before the world had woken up to recognize the danger hovering over its head, he cited at the GA.

Netanyahu is looking at the American administration that now seems confused and to have lost its way. He is seeing how the lines are being filled by new, calculating, cautious people like the new defense secretary, Robert Gates. And it is uncertain that it is possible to rely on them. That their heart is on the right side. That they have the right kind of courage. No one will defend the Jews, he told the audience at the climax of the speech, if the Jews do not defend themselves.

U.S. President George W. Bush is also a great admirer of Churchill, and in his Oval Office, where Olmert also visited this week, there is small statue of the former premier that was lent to him by the British through the generosity of his pal, Prime Minister Tony Blair. When Blair's previous pal, Bill Clinton, sat in the Oval Office, there was a different bust - that of an American president from the beginning of the last century, Teddy Roosevelt, the man who taught the American people to "speak softly and carry a big stick."

He certainly would have formed the impression that with respect to Iran, things are topsy-turvy: As the stick gets shorter, the speaking becomes more aggressive.

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