Invoking the Holocaust in rhetoric against Iran was a bad move, writes Abraham Rabinovich

He got repeated standing ovations from an audience of 13,000 when he spoke to an American Jewish lobby group's conference in Washington this week - but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was derided by Israelis when he got back home for what was seen as a pompous address that made inappropriate use of Holocaust imagery.

"Sheer nonsense," said Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer of the parallel Netanyahu drew between Iran's nuclear facilities and Nazi death camps in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"To bring up Auschwitz is a cheap way of gaining public attention."


Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni termed the Prime Minister's Holocaust references hysterical, saying: "We are not living in the ghetto. We don't need to create an atmosphere of Holocaust threats and annihilation to frighten people. The Jewish nation today has the brains and ability to deal with its enemies."

Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the daily, Ha'aretz, wrote that Netanyahu, with his talk of the threat of an impending Holocaust, was boxing himself and the country into a position where there would be little alternative but to strike at Iran, come what may.

"No amount of missiles falling on Tel Aviv, rising oil prices or economic crises matter when compared to genocide," wrote Benn sardonically. "If Netanyahu doesn't act and Iran achieves nuclear weapons capability, he'll go down in history as a pathetic loudmouth, a poor man's Churchill."

The image of Netanyahu as a posturing, would-be Churchill was raised as well by other writers who depicted him trying to strut the world's stage as a leader.

"As Prime Minister of Israel," Netanyahu told the Washington audience, "I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation."

The purpose of Netanyahu's trip to Washington was of the utmost seriousness - to meet President Barack Obama and try to narrow the gap between them about how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In this Netanyahu achieved some success, getting Obama and other American leaders to go beyond repeating that "all options are on the table" and saying out loud that one of those options was American military action.

The American leadership also stated publicly, apparently for the first time, that in seeking to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons it would not make do with "containment" - preventing a nuclear-armed Iran from using those weapons.

But Netanyahu's public rhetoric, redolent with pathos, was at odds with the gravity of his mission and diminished its effect instead of giving it resonance.

In speaking of Iran's claim that its nuclear facilities were for peaceful purposes, he told his AIPAC audience, "If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck and talks like a duck, what is it? What is it?" When the audience responded "a duck", he said "Yes, it's a nuclear duck." Those lines were more suitable to a huckster or a stump politician than a sober statesman spelling out existential choices.

In photo-ops with Obama, Netanyahu also was seen to presume an intimacy with the American leader and American interests that circumstances did not warrant. Noting that Iranian leaders dub America "the great Satan" and Israel "the little Satan", Netanyahu told Obama: "We are you and you are us. We are together." Obama did not respond but the next day he made it clear that the two countries had independent national interests.

Referring to calls by would-be Republican presidential candidates for action against Iran, he said: "Those who are ... beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what they think the costs and benefits would be."