Netanyahu and the end of days

So far, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s peace ruse is still bearing some fruit. President Obama was eager to talk with him at the United Nations — only to be reportedly rebuffed, until Mr. Obama managed to phone him for the first conservation between heads of state of the two countries since the Iranian storming of the U.S. Embassy in 1979.

Mr. Rouhani has certainly wowed Western elites with his mellifluous voice, quiet demeanor and denials of wanting a bomb. The media, who ignore the circumstances of Mr. Rouhani’s three-decade trajectory to power, gush that he is suddenly a “moderate” and “Western-educated.”

The implication is that Mr. Rouhani is not quite one of those hard-line Shiite apocalyptic theocrats like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in the past ranted about the eventual end to the Zionist entity.

Americans are sick and tired of losing blood and treasure in the Middle East. We understandably are desperate for almost any sign of Iranian outreach. Our pundits assure us that either Iran does not need and thus does not want a bomb, or that Iran at least could be contained if it got one.

No such giddy reception was given to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In comparison with Mr. Rouhani, he seemed grating to his U.N. audience in New York. A crabby Mr. Netanyahu is now seen as the party pooper, who barks in his raspy voice that Mr. Rouhani is only buying time from the West until Iran can test a nuclear bomb and that the Iranian leader is a duplicitous “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Why does the unpleasant Mr. Netanyahu sound to us so unyielding, so dismissive of Mr. Rouhani’s efforts to dialogue, so ready to start an unnecessary war? How can the democracy that wants Iran not to have the bomb sound more trigger-happy than the theocracy intent on getting it?

In theory, it could be possible that Mr. Rouhani is a genuine pragmatist, eager to open up Iran’s nuclear facilities for inspection to avoid a pre-emptory attack and continuing crippling sanctions.

However, if the world’s only superpower can afford to take that slim chance, Mr. Netanyahu really cannot. Nearly half the world’s remaining Jews live in tiny Israel — a fact emphasized by the Iranian theocrats, who have in the past purportedly characterized it as a “black stain” upon the world.

After World War II, the survivors of the Holocaust envisioned Israel as the last-chance refuge for endangered Jews. Iranian extremists have turned that idea upside down, when, for example, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani purportedly quipped that “the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.”

Mr. Netanyahu accepts that history’s lessons are not nice. The world, ancient and modern, is quite capable of snoozing as thousands perish, whether in Rwanda by edged weapons, Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds, or, most recently, 100,000 in Syria.

Centuries before nuclear weapons, entire peoples have sometimes perished in war without much of a trace — or much afterthought. After the Third Punic War, Carthage — its physical space, people and language — was obliterated by Rome. The vast Aztec empire ceased to exist within two years of encountering Hernan Cortes. Byzantine, Vandal and Prussian are now mere adjectives. Most have no idea that they refer to defeated peoples and states that vanished.

The pessimistic Mr. Netanyahu also remembers that there was mostly spineless outrage at Hitler’s systematic harassment of Jews before the outbreak of World War II — and impotence in the face of their extermination during the war. Within a decade of the end of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel throughout the Middle East had become almost a religion.

In the modern age of thermonuclear weapons, the idea of eliminating an entire people has never been more achievable. Collective morality, though, does not often follow the fast track of technological change. Any modern claim of a superior global ethos, anchored in the United Nations, that might prevent such annihilation is no more valid now than it was in 1941. Again, ask the Tutsis of Rwanda.

The disastrous idea of a pre-emptory war to disarm Iran seems to us apocalyptic. But then, we are a nation of 314 million, not 8 million; the winner of World War II, not nearly wiped out by it; surrounded by two wide oceans, not 300 million hostile neighbors; and out of Iranian missile range, not well within it. Reverse those equations, and Mr. Obama might sound as neurotic as Mr. Netanyahu would utopian.

We can be wrong about Mr. Rouhani without lethal consequences. Mr. Netanyahu reviews history and concludes that he has no such margin of error. That fact alone allows us to sound high-minded and idealistic — and Israel suspicious and cranky.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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