One wonders what words of commiseration Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu may have had for former British prime minister Tony Blair when they met this this week to discuss the latest Egyptian peace initiative.
Both men, charismatic showmen who won three successive elections despite being widely despised, know that you don’t need to be loved to lead a country.
It is appealing to imagine what a Chilcot report on Netanyahu’s actions and decision-making processes over the last decade would look like. Similar Israeli commissions, from Agranat (on the Yom Kippur War) to Winograd (on the Second Lebanon War), have been far less damning.
Could Netanyahu have seen in Blair’s hubris a portent of his own doom? After all, both are clearly prone to a messiah complex.
Netanyahu is sure that he is the Churchillian leader tasked with saving Israel from existential danger.
Blair, in his public appearances in the wake of the report, has been red-eyed but defiant, convinced he took the right decision in the best interests of his country.
Like Margaret Thatcher, a figure both Blair and Netanyahu made no secret of admiring, they defined a political era. Both made painful, transformative changes to their parties; Bibi kicked out the princes from the Likud and Blair the union barons from Labour.
And there are endless demands for both men to face a Hague tribunal from angry people who, perhaps willfully, misunderstand international law.
(It’s also tempting to point out that their respective spouses are both professional women hated by everyone, although perhaps that has more to do with misogyny).
Political comparisons are fun to make, but of course they only go so far.
Blair resigned amidst an internecine power struggle, not because of Iraq, and Netanyahu - in his third consecutive term and fourth stint as prime minister - shows no signs of going anywhere.
The political culture between the two countries remains vastly different, amply illustrated by the two men’s respective treatment of both countries’ most important ally, the U.S.
Blair was slavishly committed to Britain’s “special relationship” with the U.S. Many have called a six-word sentence from a letter to Bush cited in the Chilcot Report – “I will be with you, whatever” – his political epitaph. In truth it could as easily be the two words the U.S. president uttered so damningly - “Yo, Blair” - at a summit in 2006.
The British leader had already been damaged by accusations of being “Bush’s poodle.”
No one could accuse Netanyahu of anything similar. In fact he made one baffling decision after another that has alienated the White House beyond all logic. His insistence on standing up to Washington has even become something of his own unique selling point. A 2015 campaign ad began with Netanyahu ostensibly on the phone to the White House sternly proclaiming, “Mr. President, Israel is acting to defend its security.”
But Netanyahu has more than any predecessor acted to make support of Israel a partisan issue, alienating perhaps permanently large sections of U.S. Jewry in the process.
Still, his apocalyptic vision of the forces of chaos massing on Israel’s never-to-be defined borders has proved enduringly appealing to an electorate with little warmth for him but utterly lacking a viable alternative.
To outside observers it may seem strange that Blair should be so universally despised, particularly within a Labour party he took to one previously unimaginable victory after another. He presided over a period of relative calm and prosperity as well as major initiatives such as the Good Friday agreement that ended the decades-long violence in Northern Ireland. It’s important to remember that despite sparking the largest ever political protest in British history, the unpopularity of the Iraq war was not enough to prevent him being re-elected.
But there’s something peculiarly British about both Chilcot itself and the reaction to it.
Few others blame the U.K. for the situation in Iraq now. America bears much more responsibility for the catastrophe – both for the way it went into the war and how it withdrew its troops in 2011. Yet Americans are in no way as obsessed with Bush as we are with Blair. There is nothing like the angry introspection and sense of awful guilt that surrounds the whole issue here in Britain.
America lost 4,486 soldiers during its Iraq adventure; Britain lost 179. But the British aren’t just angry about the lives of its soldiers wasted on such a seemingly invalid war, or the potential risks to our own domestic security, with calls for revenge from Al-Qaida followed by pledges of revenge from the Islamic State. It’s the human misery of the Iraqis that torments us, the consequences of the bloody chaos unleashed in the invasion’s wake. And it’s the idea that our leaders lied - even if Chilcot found no specific evidence of Blair lying, the public isn’t convinced – that we find so unbearable.
"There were no lies - there was no deceit," Blair told a post-Chilcot press conference. But some in Britain are still calling for Blair to be put on trial. They refuse to accept that being a war criminal is a legal rather than an emotional judgment.
It is hard to imagine other countries going through the same amount of self-flagellation. Perhaps there's an element of post-colonial guilt, although the Falklands War, our previous major military adventure, was much more redolent of empire and nonetheless a cause for national honor.
But Britain expects more from itself and its leaders, which amid rising post-Brexit social division and xenophobia here is at least cause for a little hope. That's not to say we are never disappointed. The Leave camp's extravagant promises of £350 million extra for the National Health Service and other grandiose benefits for leaving the EU have already turned to ashes. We may yet have a reckoning over those machinations too.
The Chilcot report’s value lies in its potential as a guide to avoid future intelligence and leadership failures, particularly in terms of foreign policy, rather than as a tool of revenge.
It also underlines the fact that while for Israelis, security is imperative, in Britain voters first of all (still) expect honesty from their politicians.
Daniella Peled is the Managing Editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @DaniellaPeled
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