Beware Following a Netanyahu Blinded by Fear

03/13/2015 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

While there has been widespread opposition to the reckless tactics of forty-seven U.S. Senators seeking to undermine any negotiated agreement with Iran, many may yet agree with their objective. Yet that, too, is a mistake - and particularly if they were swayed by Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech.

It is dangerous to accept Netanyahu's views of Iran because he is blinded by fear. Haunted by the specter of annihilation, Netanyahu can think only in terms of defenses and preemptive strikes. Those gripped by primal fear of threats to their existence can neither humanize their opponents nor imagine peace.

Like most Jews raised in the aftermath of World War II, Benjamin Netanyahu grew up with accounts of real monsters: Nazis. He heard tales of children wrenched from their parents, terrifying privation and treatment in camps, and unthinkable mass extermination -- and all were true. Rather than learning that scary Grimm's Fairy Tales were fiction, he like many others faced the terror of truth.

The Holocaust also proved to him that unthinkable horrors are possible: that a few psychopathic leaders determined to wipe out a people can convince others to join their cause, eclipse normal morality and exterminate millions of innocent people. Informed by the past, Netanyahu can easily believe that Iran's Supreme Leader could take steps to wipe out the State of Israel. Because of his personalized knowledge of evil, Netanyahu cannot conceive of an acceptable negotiated agreement because he cannot feel safe or believe in peace.

Such fear is dangerous because it invites quick acceptance of any information that reinforces and justifies the narrative that drives it. It inclines the fearful toward distortions and mistaken perceptions. Netanyahu can take crazy statements from Iran that are typically intended for domestic politics, and regard them as ironclad evidence of a complete plot to erase the State of Israel.

Fear also resists any contrary facts or representations that may weaken the resolve to fight and protect: Netanyahu's descriptions of Iran do not recognize that during World War 2, the Iranian ambassador to France gave many Jewish people passports, or that although Iran expelled prosperous Jews who were close to the Shah, 25,000 Jews now live in Iran.

Having but one script, Netanyahu has had to presume that an ignorant man like Ahmadinejad was as dangerous as Hitler - when Ahmadinejad wielded little power as compared with the Supreme Leader. And while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has undeniably made many anti-Semitic comments and expressed his wish that Israel be eliminated, Netanyahu has not sought to view those comments in the context of domestic repression and control.

Nor does Netanyahu make any allowance for differences between leaders and people. An Iranian-American colleague recently noted: "It's very hard for us Iranians to hear this repeated narrative that Iranians hate Jews, or that as a people or even as the abhorrent regime that we have, that there is an intent to destroy the Jewish people. The rhetoric in Iran is old and tired, and used to appease a tiny minority of hardliners. But it is not shared by the public - and never was."

But gripped by fear, Netanyahu cannot fathom a narrative that includes internal Iranian power struggles and an Iranian government that has systematically violated basic human and civil rights of its own citizens through repression and torture. He has no interest in young Iranians who are attracted by Western or liberal culture, and who desperately seek a democratic society. Fear so impedes empathy that Netanyahu cannot imagine that many Iranians feel that "in Israel the hatred towards Iran is far more mainstream, and the threat that they pose to Iran (their willingness to bomb if the opportunity arises) is much greater than anything Iran would ever do to them."

If an alternative narrative were possible, Israel could take steps toward peace rather than war: Rather than threatening to bomb Iran, it might employ "soft power" to reach out to young and liberal Iranians who fear their own government far more than Israel, and wish for a more open society. Where are the music exchange programs like those between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or even between the US and Cuba?

Mr. Netanyahu is blinded by the past and by his fears. While it may be understandable, it is not acceptable. Such fears are not reliable bases for sensitive American foreign policy. They are dangerous if they are used to gin up fear within others, such as members of Congress, or to gain votes from a fear-filled electorate. Instead, Netanyahu and Americans should be glad that an honest broker - one not constrained by fear - is willing to work toward an arrangement that Netanyahu cannot even imagine. When assessing the dangers posed by Iran, both we and our representatives must see beyond Netanyahu's fears - and support responsible negotiations.