Churchill, or Captain Ahab?

Mr. Netanyahu, relax, think it over. Stop. Wake up from your trance. It’s not so terrible if you aren’t written down in history as a replica of Churchill.

It seems the decisive moment we have been awaiting for two decades has finally arrived. One of our greatest political mysteries may be solved by the showdown against Iran: Who is this man known as Benjamin Netanyahu, and why did he so much want to be prime minister of Israel?

All answers to the riddle so far have been partial and superficial. People say he likes the pomp of the office; that he is motivated by the desire to prove himself compared to his late brother, who was always preeminent; or that he is afflicted with a syndrome common to veterans of the elite Sayeret Matkal army unit, whose symptoms are ambition and arrogance. His “Churchillian” dybbuk is also a mere curiosity, as long as it doesn’t go beyond the bounds of rhetoric: Has there ever been a prime minister who doesn’t fantasize sometimes about being a bit like Churchill?

The longer Netanyahu stayed in office, the more we came to view him as an ordinary politician ‏(albeit one who appears to have emigrated from the American Bible Belt‏). It’s true that he is theatrical and capricious, but at least he has an internal smart gyroscope that is able to correct his mistakes and lunacies in mid-stride. Even his harshest critics could not ignore the bonus that came with his never-ending zigzags, his lack of diplomatic activity and his obsession with the media: As long as the lofty rhetoric was offset by vacillation in practice, we were at least spared existential shake-ups and military adventures.

In Israel, such an achievement suffices to register a prime minister in the golden book. And from this standpoint, Netanyahu’s two terms of office have so far been wrapped in a kind of black magic in which virtuality triumphed over reality.
But it was clear that this could not continue − that one day it would be over, whether with a whimper or a bang. And now that this day seems to be drawing closer, the fear is that it will happen with both a bang and a whimper.

The “Iranian threat” has been hovering over Israel’s head for years, one more among the many clouds on our horizon. For generations, Israeli prime ministers have borne it in mind: They knew where to locate it among the other dangers, and sometimes used it for their own needs. But they always were careful to avoid one thing: prancing about in front of the Iranian launching pad and making ourselves the central target of the bomb. Yet lo and behold, this is the very thing − indeed, perhaps the only thing − that Netanyahu is now doing, almost gleefully.

In the beginning, it seemed as if this were just a more pronounced nuance by someone who had fallen in love with his political persona as “Mr. Terror.” But it has since become clear that this is not a mere emphasis, or even a kind of rational public relations move, but rather an obsession, a monomania. This man, egged on by his megalomaniac defense minister, Ehud Barak, has tangled himself so deeply in his own rhetoric, and been pulled so deeply into his fantasy of saving the world, like Churchill in the 1930s, that it is doubtful he could be saved from his own impulses even if he wanted to be.

Indeed, as if to bolster himself irreversibly against his most welcome character trait − the fact that he changes his mind, the tendency to regain his balance − Netanyahu is now surrounding himself solely with yes-men, to whom he sends thank-you notes. He is getting rid of those who say no, and he is scornful of warnings and rational arguments against attacking Iran. As he put it, “Everything − including damage to the home front − is insignificant in the face of the Iranian bomb.”

“Everything” includes a regional war. And the destruction of our cities. And the fate of our country. And the economy. Everything.

Mr. Netanyahu, relax, think it over. Stop. Wake up from your trance. It’s not so terrible if you aren’t written down in history as a replica of Churchill. But it is terrible indeed if you are remembered as Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick” − who, because of his obsessive pursuit of the white whale, ultimately sank himself and the entire ship.