The differences between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama extend beyond their views of the current negotiations to limit Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons. The two leaders draw on fundamentally different lessons from history as they shape their country’s respective positions in regards to a nuclear Iran. In fact, their whole approach to using history in making their case on whether or not to engage Iran diplomatically differs.
Speaking before the Joint Meeting of Congress, the Prime Minister engaged in historical selection in looking backward to predict what might lay ahead. After the obligatory political thank you’s, Netanyahu started his speech by citing the Old Testament story of Esther, a “courageous Jewish woman” who warned the Jewish people of a plot to destroy them conceived by a Persian viceroy. He drew the direct line from the religious holiday of Purim commemorating the story of Esther to what he sees is yet another plot by a Persian ruler to destroy Israel and he cites the sitting Ayatollah’s tweets as evidence. Another Old Testament figure that Netanyahu chose to ignore is the Persian King Cyrus who ended the Babylonian captivity, called for the rebuilding of a “house of God” in Jerusalem and restored the religious vessels that his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had taken when he destroyed the temple and the city.
Netanyahu also cites more recent history in highlighting the case of North Korea, when it reneged on its commitments to an international agreement hammered out through diplomatic negotiations to forestall the acquisition of a nuclear bomb. North Korea, like Iran, was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement. To date, North Korea is the only country to have withdrawn from the agreement, and all obligations under it to limit nuclear technology to peaceful purposes and prevent the development and spread of nuclear weapons. Here again, another historical selection overlooked by Netanyahu is South Africa, which abandoned its nuclear weapon program and signed the non-proliferation treaty in 1993.
The point is not that the appropriate historical parallels ought to be Cyrus and South Africa, but that historical precedents abound and can land on any side of a political debate.
President Obama, on the other hand, uses his understanding of history not to find past precedents but to look for present, transformative opportunities that could reshape history, as understood only by looking backward years from now.
Obama certainly knows of such historic moments. It’s not hard to anticipate the histories 50 or 100 years from now, citing his election and re-election as the first African-American President. They may also include his willingness to open a new chapter in U.S. relations with Cuba or to tackle the issue of affordable health care in this country, just to mention two. In announcing the opening of diplomatic talks with Iran in September 2013, Obama looked ahead and envisioned the possibilities of not only “a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” but also one that would “help us to address other concerns that could bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.”
Obama also recognizes that individuals who seek such opportunities run enormous risks, not just for their own political careers but for their nations that they lead. It’s why he is leaving the door open for tougher sanctions and even the use of military options should Iran decide to use these negotiations as a cover to work towards producing nuclear weapons. He does not want those histories in the future to write of him as another architect of appeasement. The roads he has chosen to walk are littered with obstacles and critics. However, he also acknowledges that the alternatives on Iran, however politically expedient they may be in dealing with crises, do not offer to resolve them, simply delay them, perhaps for another President or Prime Minister. His model, after all, is Lincoln, not Buchanan.
Both leaders take a long view of history, but while Netanyahu’s view goes backward, Obama’s looks forward. When Netanyahu looks forward, he sees only weeks, to the next election in Israel on March 17, or to inject himself into the current political stalemate in Washington. David Remnick’s profile of Obama in the pages of the New Yorker in January 2014 quoted aides repeatedly discussing Obama’s sense of understanding his actions under the long telescope of history. Obama told Remnick that “at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
There is a great distance to go before reaching any accord with Iran over its nuclear program and its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and an even greater distance to restoring diplomatic relations with Iran. But history is the story of change, and that change does not happen without taking the first steps, as risky as they might seem. Netanyahu uses history to avoid the first step; Obama looks way down the road to see where that first step might lead.
This post originally appeared on History News Network.