Is Benjamin Netanyahu Rational?

Is Benjamin Netanyahu rational? The question has to be asked because Netanyahu, the leader of a country that is paranoid about its own security, controls a secret nuclear arsenal and has the capability to bomb just about anybody. Rational behavior in the context of a head of state is admittedly an elusive quality, but it generally means that occasional lying is okay, particularly if it is tenuously based on something that might be true. Lying with a straight face or completely evading critical questions might even be considered a perk of office. But when the chips are down and hard decisions have to be made, a head of government should at least behave like a mature adult employing some logical process. That would mean weighing up the plusses and minuses of various actions, risks versus gains, and coming up with a response that serves the country’s interests with the least collateral damage possible.

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has not made very good decisions. From Tel Aviv’s point of view, it is absolutely essential that Israel maintain the support of the United States and also very important that it be regarded positively by the Europeans and Russia. Yet Netanyahu has gone the opposite way, continuing to expand settlements even after the United States president has told him to stop, announcing new settlement growth to coincide with the arrival of the American vice president on a state visit, assassinating an Arab official using fake European passports, continuing the strangulation of Gaza for no good reason even when it is opposed by both the European Union and Washington, and engaging in an act of piracy on the high seas that resulted in the deaths of nine unarmed civilians, sticking his thumb in the eye of Israel’s closest Muslim friend, Turkey.

A keen observer of the Netanyahu behavior might well detect a suicidal tendency, perhaps tied in some way to the well known Israeli Masada complex. Masada was the first century A.D. site of the suicide of nearly one thousand Israelite zealots who refused to surrender to the Roman army. More recently, in 1991 investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported on the modern version of Masada called the Samson Option, in which Israel was planning to use nuclear weapons to destroy most of the Middle East if it were in danger of being overrun. Today hardliners have similarly warned that if Israel is threatened with destruction it will take the whole Mideast region down with it and possibly also nuke selected European capitals. So the idea of a mass national suicide leading to destruction of substantial parts of the world in one great conflagration is definitely floating out there in Israeli extremist circles. Christian supporters of Israel have also picked up on the end-of-days theme and are referred to as Armageddonists, signaling their embrace of a final world-ending battle preceding a rapture up to heaven and the second coming of Christ.

The neoconservatives frequently complain that Islam is not a "religion of peace," but the Old Testament is also a bloody book, including as it does many accounts of the Israelites massacring their enemies with God’s blessing. There are also elements of the Jewish religion that are dark and lend themselves to a mindset that accepts one standard for Jews and another for gentiles. The very concept of being one of a "chosen people" can be interpreted positively by observing that God had selected the Jewish people to be his witness and bear his message, but it can also be turned on its head to imply that those who are not chosen are somehow inferior. Being selected by God has also been used to support the Israeli claim to the land that they have stolen from the Palestinians, a line that has inevitably been parroted by the Christians United for Israel and other evangelical groups in the US. 

The current Israeli government is the most hard-line and intransigent in the history of the country and it has a nasty, racist edge to it. Netanyahu has regularly played the race card, once praising the cutting of social benefits in Israel so the country’s Arab minority will be unable to have so many children. His Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is an out-and-out racist fearmonger who has openly advocated executing Arab members of the Knesset and drowning Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea. At one time he called for bombing the Aswan dam to punish Egypt for supporting the Palestinians. Lieberman demanded recently that Christian and Muslim Arab residents of Israel swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state or face expulsion. The insistence that Israel is and should be a Jewish state means that it cannot be democratic as it is making full legal rights contingent on religion, not on a concept of citizenship. Lieberman’s proposal was widely seen as an attempt to ethnically cleanse Israel’s Arab minority, forcing them to leave the country completely. Ironically, while Lieberman works assiduously to remove Arabs born and raised in Israel and Palestine he himself was born in the Soviet Union and did not move to Israel until he was 20 years old.

Netanyahu has demonstrated that he will not hesitate to shed the blood of foreigners, to defend his country even when the threat is not viewed by most observers as warranting such an extreme response. He regularly threatens the Iranians, up to and including nuclear incineration carried out by a cruise missile-bearing submarine which is reported to be parked off the Iranian coast. 

The problem with Netanyahu’s threats and the thinking behind them is that the Jewish holy book the Talmud contains a number of passages that suggest that it is all right to kill a non-Jew. The meaning of the text has been disputed and sometimes challenged on the basis of context or relevancy and there are other sections that suggest that Judaism does not see itself in exclusionary terms, but the passages in question undeniably imply that killing a gentile is not the same as killing a Jew. And some other disputed sections of the Talmud also suggest that while telling falsehoods is a sin it is all right and even praiseworthy to tell lies to gentiles or to do things deliberately to harm them. 

Recognizing that it undoubtedly makes many people uncomfortable to cite the bloodthirstiness of the Old Testament and Talmud, it must be observed that virtually all American and European Jews would rightly laugh at the notion that they are a people chosen by God that authorizes special rights and privileges vis-à-vis their fellow citizens. Nearly all would agree that lying or murdering someone is always wrong. But other attitudes appear to prevail in Israel where there is most definitely a different perspective. To those who are skeptical about how religion bolsters jingoism, one need only look at reports that Israeli Army rabbis for the first time were seen exhorting front line troops during the 2009 invasion of Gaza. The army rabbinate also issued pamphlets advising "When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers…This is a war on murderers." More recently, the Israeli commando who reportedly shot dead six unarmed Turks on board the Gaza bound Mavi Marmara has reportedly been recommended for a medal. Many Israelis excuse brutality towards the Palestinians based on a divine dispensation, God’s will to create a Greater Israel and cleanse it of followers of other faiths. Combined with an in-your-face nationalism that feeds off of a siege mentality, it is a sentiment that has been growing stronger over the past few years demographically as religious conservatives out-reproduce their politically more liberal counterparts. Many moderate Israelis have also become concernedthat the army officer ranks are increasingly being filled by Jewish fundamentalists and settlers who believe in Israel’s divine mission.

Netanyahu is a product of his environment, education, and culture and one can reasonably ask what drives him. The question is important because if his inner demons reinforced by a sense of ethnic entitlement and racial superiority are in control, he cannot be trusted at all, in anything that he says. And it could have dire consequences for the United States, suggesting that Netanyahu will behave ideologically and culturally rather than rationally and will unhesitatingly draw Washington into a war with Iran, a conflict in which the US will have to pay much the heavier price both in treasure and in lives. So it is important to know what Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman as well as some of their extremist colleagues in government actually believe. Do they believe that they are racially or by the grace of God better or more entitled than their Arab neighbors or their American patrons? Do they think that the killing of gentiles is less wrong than killing a Jew? Do they believe that lying constantly is acceptable because the lies are directed at the gentile population, not to deceive coreligionists? Based on recent evidence, lying to the gentiles certainly appears to be the hallmark of the Israeli government response to the Gaza flotilla massacre. The Israelis have fabricated information and even two videos, contrived a manifestly false narrative, and lied at every step along the way, ignoring eyewitness accounts and calling their unfortunate victims aggressors and "al-Qaeda mercenaries."

Unfortunately the arrogance of Bibi Netanyahu and the behavior of the Israeli government would seem to suggest strongly a belief in a manifest destiny granted by God. Israel is prepared to charge recklessly ahead to do whatever it takes to intimidate and instill fear among all its neighbors. Tel Aviv wants to be a combination of a mad dog and the school bully, suggesting that its contempt for Washington made evident in the Lavon Affair and the attempted sinking of the USS Liberty in 1967 was the rule rather than the exception and could easily happen again. And Israel appears to have little concern about doing whatever is necessary to drag the United States down with it if that is what is required. It is we Americans who should be fearful. Each American should be very concerned about what Bibi is actually thinking, particularly as our Congress and media have already been bought and occupied and we have a president who is so unsure of the support of his own party that he is afraid to face down an Israeli prime minister.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.