Sympathetic observers of Israel may be tempted to conclude that Netanyahu’s Holocaust imagery is the natural response of a Jewish leader faced with threats from gangsters like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But that’s not true, as evidenced by the insistence of top Israeli security officials that Iran does not represent a Nazi-style existential threat. In truth, Netanyahu’s taste for the apocalyptic flows less from his Jewishness than from his conservatism—a conservatism learned during his close association with the Republican right while he served as a diplomat in Washington and New York in the 1980s. His insistence that Israel launch a preventive war on Iran before it gains nuclear capacity echoes right wingers like James Burnham, who urged the U.S. to wage preventive war against the Soviet Union to prevent it from building an atomic bomb in the late 1940s. And it echoes men like Cheney who spread panic about the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s, about China and North Korea in the 1990s, and about Iraq after 9/11.
Israel today is witnessing the same struggle that Washington witnessed in 2002 and 2003, a struggle between people who think practically and people who think ideologically, between people trying to soberly assess a given adversary and people who can view that adversary only by analogy with the mightiest, most demonic powers the world has ever known. One of the most appalling features of America’s invasion of Iraq was how ignorant top policymakers turned out to be about the country they set out to conquer and remake. Netanyahu doesn’t seem much better. According to The New York Times, he has been telling visitors that the Iranian people may welcome being bombed by Israel. No wonder Meir Dagan is scared.