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Benjamin Netanyahu as Churchill and Herzl

Have you heard how Bibi decorates his office?

Adam Chandler
October 14, 2013

Over the weekend, the Times ran a story by its Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren, in which she interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As you might know, Bibi is on a tireless campaign to convince the world that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is the world community’s Yoko Ono–working to divide the international coalition’s unified opposition to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

For all Bibi’s efforts, he’s being portrayed as something of a heel (perhaps on a rubber soul). Or as Rudoren’s describes, Netanyahu “has sometimes come off sounding shrill” and is “increasingly alone abroad and at home.” Whether that’s true or not is difficult to prove. What’s easy to prove is that seemingly any time there is a profile written of Benjamin Netanyahu in crisis, Bibi’s choice of office decor always helps carry the narrative along. Exhibit A, Jodi Rudoren’s story on Saturday:

Behind his desk in his office here, above a shelf filled with the encyclopedia his father edited, sit two framed photographs of men Mr. Netanyahu admires for having been able to see “danger in time” and find ways to avert it: Winston Churchill, complete with hat, pinstripes and cigar, and a long-bearded Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. “They were alone a lot more than I am,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Back in 2010, as Netanyahu and Obama continually and publicly seemed at odds, George Will commented on the shelves in Netanyahu’s office thusly:

One photograph is of Theodor Herzl, born 150 years ago. Dismayed by the eruption of anti-Semitism in France during the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the 19th century, Herzl became Zionism’s founding father. Long before the Holocaust, he concluded that Jews could find safety only in a national homeland.

The other photograph is of Winston Churchill, who considered himself “one of the authors” of Britain’s embrace of Zionism. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 stated: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Beginning in 1923, Britain would govern Palestine under a League of Nations mandate.

Netanyahu, his focus firmly on Iran, honors Churchill because he did not flinch from facts about gathering storms. Obama returned to the British Embassy in Washington the bust of Churchill that was in the Oval Office when he got there.

A month before that, Aluf Benn made this groundbreaking observation in Haaretz:

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.

David Remnick, who wrote one of the best profiles of Netanyahu for the New Yorker in the late 1990s, commented on how Netanyahu sees himself last year as the issue of Israel and Iran emerged in the 2012 election season:

Netanyahu sees himself in world-historical terms, as a Churchill, as a Herzl, someone who will go down in the annals of time as a savior of his people. His opponents believe that this tendency to view himself this way and the situation through the lens of 1939 is actually distorting and dangerous and leading him toward a rash, dangerous decision.

The OGs of the Netanyahu office divining may be the unsigned folks at The Economist, who in January 2010 remarked:

His office is adorned with portraits of two of his political idols. One is Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. But the other, Winston Churchill, is unusual in a country that regards Britain as having betrayed the Zionist cause when it ruled Palestine.

Mr Netanyahu draws inspiration from the British wartime leader for reasons both tactical and strategic. Political courage in Israel is often deemed to mean willingness to surrender, after decades of colonisation, the territories captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war; to act like Charles de Gaulle, who gave up Algeria. By holding up Churchill, Mr Netanyahu is saying that courage consists of holding tenaciously to one’s beliefs, regardless of popularity.

This model carried special force on the question of Iran. As opposition leader, Mr Netanyahu recalled Churchill’s efforts to awaken the world to the danger of Nazi Germany. “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany,” he said in 2006. Now that he is in power, pundits ask, might Bibi see himself as the Churchill of the Battle of Britain, fighting alone against Hitler and desperately trying to draw America into the war?

What does Bibi have to say about all this? Well, fortunately for us, Piers Morgan—whom Real Kaplan has dubbed “America’s anchor”—asked Netanyahu himself in 2011.

MORGAN: Prime Minister, who are your heroes?

NETANYAHU: Oh, people who mattered, changed the lives of mankind and the lives of my people. First year, I suppose, Theodor Herzl — how old are you?

MORGAN: I’m 45.

NETANYAHU: Forty-five. Well, he was dead by then. He began at 36. He was a journalist in Vienna, saw the Dreyfus trial, understood that the Jews were going to be exterminated in Europe and began the movement that resulted in the creation of the modern Jewish state. He worked all of eight years. Like a prophet of old who came out of nowhere and changed the history of our people. He was a pretty big hero.

I admire Winston Churchill because I think he saw the danger to western civilization and acted in time to staunch the hemorrhage. I have other heroes.


He does?!

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.