Netanyahu is usually content to equate all critics of Israel with Nazis and charge that another Holocaust is in the making. Now, though, he conjures up a much larger history of oppression going back to the Middle Ages, identifying Israel's critics not merely with Hitler, but with ten centuries or more of anti-Semitic persecution, violence and rage.
It might be tempting to dismiss such florid rhetoric as mere window dressing. But it would be a mistake. Because when a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes the big lie. And when so many people believe the big lie, it takes on a life of its own. Ignoring it means letting it go on doing its destructive work.
The popular picture of Israel as a defenseless ghetto, packed with innocent, vulnerable Jews surrounding by raging anti-Semites, is the big lie that lets all the little falsehoods about Israeli policy flourish.
Apparently, it's increasingly popular in Israel. Reporting on a poll that shows Netanyahu's popularity growing (though still at only 52 percent approval), Ha'aretz commented: "The [Israeli] public apparently buys Netanyahu's narrative, which seems to suggest that the world is hypocritical, that we are the only just people and that whoever is not with him - with Netanyahu - is against Israel."
Israeli columnist Doron Rosenblum agrees that Netanyahu gets political mileage out of this narrative of victimization: "The National PR man has once again succeeded in explaining to the domestic consumer, who is wallowing in his fears and hatreds, that there really is a reason for the sense of siege, isolation and persecution: The world is hypocritical, the wave is getting stronger, the vise is closing in." And Rosenblum points out the tragic irony: the more Israelis base their policies on their fear of being ostracized by the world, the more they take actions that insure they'll be ostracized.
Unfortunately, we don't have polls that ask the public here in the US about that narrative. If we did, I'd bet the farm that it would be accepted by a sizable majority, in one form or another. There are many versions, some more subtle than others. But they all reflect the basic image of the Jews as victims of an unbroken chain of oppression and victimization, leading right up to the present-day woes of "poor little Israel."
There would be many Americans who would know the facts that disprove this narrative: Israel's immense military power, which it does not hesitate to use, and Israel's obvious position as dominator, not dominated. Some would know that the history of the Jews is hardly one of unrelieved persecution. Jews have often lived amicably with Christians and Muslims in many places around the world. Certainly, today, most Jews in the US and many other lands live freely, with virtually full acceptance and no discrimination.
Yet, even those who consciously know these facts are unconsciously affected by the story of endless suffering, which Netanyahu and so many other Israeli leaders have relied on to justify Israel's violence. That's how the big lie works, spreading its tentacles beneath the surface of consciousness as well as above it.
And I suspect that it reaches up to the highest levels of power, in Washington as well as Jerusalem. There's no hard proof; the evidence is anecdotal. But when you grow up in a culture suffused with the big lie, it is very difficult to escape. With a public so primed to see Jews as defenseless victims, policymakers who are on the fence find it politically safer to "stand with Israel." And if they still aren't sure which way to go, the emotional tug of the Israeli narrative, no matter how slight, can be enough to tilt them to the Israelis' side.
That's not to say Washington always takes the Israelis' side. In the wake of international outrage over the flotilla attack, President Obama called on the Israelis to ease the Gaza blockade. Though they'd previously refused, the Israelis are now taking steps, albeit slowly and ambiguously, to comply. As one Israeli analyst put it: "The right flank of Netanyahu's cabinet is far from thrilled with these steps, and the same goes for senior defense establishment officials, But when the Obama administration insists, the Netanyahu government gives in.
This was the price Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak paid for Obama's stamp of approval on an internal investigation that would save those leaders' political skin, according to Israeli journalist Amos Harel: "Netanyahu and Barak fought like lions over the status and powers of the committee that has been appointed to examine the naval raid. The narrow mandate accorded the committee, with U.S. agreement, ensures that no harm will befall the two leaders."
It also insures that little or no harm will befall the big lie with which all Israeli governments have justified their violence against Palestinians and the ensuing cover-ups. And it encourages the Israelis to count on the big lie to justify future violence against the many flotillas yet to come.
The same big lie is part of the reason the U.S. government so often stands, and lies, with Israel - even when that policy obviously runs counter to U.S. interests and alienates the U.S. from the international community, as in the current case of the flotilla investigation. How big a part the lie plays is anyone's guess. There's no way to prove it. But it would be dangerous to underestimate it.