Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-anticipated address to Congress on Tuesday contained few major surprises. Netanyahu urged the U.S. to scrap its in-progress nuclear deal with Iran in favor of nothing less than a complete dismantling of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure. In making his case at the invitation of Speaker of the House John Boehner instead of U.S. President Barack Obama, Netanyahu also arguably put U.S.-Israeli relations on the line to make a bet for a “better deal” that most analysts say is a fantasy.
The U.S.-backed deal, as it currently stands, will honor Iran’s insistence that it be able to maintain a limited nuclear program for domestic purposes. The deal would allow Iran to continue enriching low-grade (not bomb-grade) uranium, but require it to submit to extensive inspections and forfeit existing stockpiles. For Israel, this is not enough; indeed, nothing less than an all out nuclear amputation is acceptable. As the deal stands, Netanyahu argued, Iran will inevitably launch nuclear war — the risks of which would be higher for Israel than any other country on the planet.
Netanyahu never fails to command attention with his impressive oratorical skills, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that his interpretation of the Iranian threat (as well as the deal the U.S. seems to be pursuing,) is erroneous at best. For one thing, recently leaked intelligence cables show that Netanyahu’s own intelligence service concluded that Iran is not nearly as close to developing a bomb as the prime minister’s fear-mongering suggests. And even if Tehran did have a nuclear warhead in hand, the “second-strike” capabilities of Israel — not to mention its allies — would render such an attack on Israel unfathomable. In fact, some experts have argued that a nuclear Iran could actually ensure peace by balancing power.
That said, most analysts believe that Iran craves nuclear capabilities for the same reason it indulges in anti-Israel posturing in defense of Palestine: Tehran is after regional influence and geopolitical agency, not genocidal war against Israel. By most reasonable estimations, Iran’s local prestige is not something worth going to war to avoid — and most experts are skeptical that Netanyahu has any alternative to the so-called “bad deal” besides all-out military conflict. It is difficult to see why no deal could possibly be preferable to the one taking shape.
But history buffs would be justified in objecting to Netanyahu’s controversial speech for another reason: his flawed use of history. During his speech he predictably invoked World War II, a thinly-veiled reference to his all-time favorite historical analogy: the present is just like 1938, and Iran is Germany.
The implication is a damning one. Netanyahu is invoking the appeasement strategy adapted by European powers in the infamous Munich Agreement in September of 1938. By that time, Nazi Germany had already violated the Treaty of Versailles by moving troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, as well as into Austria (which was largely welcomed by both nations.) Hitler’s persecution of Jews was also evident by this time, with registration and discriminatory professional and economic laws already on the books, alongside an escalation in anti-Jewish violence in areas under Nazi control. Despite mounting evidence of aggression, the Munich Agreement resulted in allowing Germany to annex the German-speaking swaths of Czechoslovakia to ward off war. While most of Europe was relieved at the time that peace had been secured, the ensuing horrors of World War II have turned the continent’s failed strategy of appeasement into a symbol of the naivety of diplomatic compromise.
But a more nuanced consideration of the Munich Agreement complicates this picture. It’s easy to feel somewhat sorry for Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister doomed to forever stand in contrast with Winston Churchill as Hitler’s limp doormat. While it’s easy to grieve the horrors of World War II, it’s harder to argue definitively that there was a wiser option at the time. Most historians agree that European military capabilities were seriously dwarfed by Germany’s, and that aggressive action in 1938 could have been too easily rebuffed — a result potentially graver than appeasement. Even in this light, casting Iran as Germany at Munich feels like a stretch. The Third Reich was explicitly expansionist, whereas Tehran focuses on soft power. Still, the continual trotting out of 1938 as history’s most dangerous bout of wussiness relies on an overly rosy assumption of how well an alternative would have played out.
But Netanyahu is on even shakier historical ground when he likens global inaction against Iran to the early days of the Holocaust. To invoke this parallel, he introduced the famous Holocaust survivor, writer and human rights activist Elie Weisel and said, “I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.” But casting modern-day Israel in relation to Iran in the role of persecuted Jews on the eve of the Holocaust is dangerous. Yes, it’s valid to bemoan the disempowerment of Jews at the hands of Hitler, and criticizing the failure of other nations to act on their behalf is a salient historical point. But with its nuclear arsenal, defense capabilities and powerful alliances, this is far from Israel’s situation. As Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofaz put it in his criticism of Netanyahu for his Iran Holocaust comparisons, “Israel is not a ghetto.”
Netanyahu’s bad analogies are unconvincing when it comes to building a plan for peace, and it seems inevitable that his alternative to the “bad deal” is war. If U.S. Republicans need a historical analogy to explain this, here’s a better one: World War I could have been stopped had fewer countries blindly followed their allies even when it made matters worse.