IN HIS SPEECH to Congress on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned historical and literary resources to support a hard line in the negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu turned first to the ancient Biblical story of Esther, the young Jewish queen of Persia, who, with the help of her uncle Mordecai, foiled a plot to kill all the Jews. Scholars disagree on the historical standing of this story, but last week Jews worldwide celebrated Purim in commemoration of Esther, and Netanyahu was able to claim, 2,500 years later, that Esther had saved her people from "yet another Persian potentate."
Elie Wiesel was in the congressional gallery during the speech. Wiesel, a writer, activist, Nobel Prize laureate and opponent of a deal with Iran, survived Auschwitz as a teenager and wrote about his experiences in books such as Night. Netanyahu acknowledged Wiesel, recalling the memory and the immediacy of one of civilization's vilest chapters, the Holocaust.
He declared to the world that the days when Jews will remain passive in the face of genocidal enemies are over.
Then, at the end of his speech, Netanyahu quoted the patriarch Moses: "Be strong and resolute. Neither fear nor dread them." Thus, from the Exodus to the Holocaust, he deployed an ancient narrative, spanning millennia and deeply rooted in conflict, persecution and suspicion.
In this context, Netanyahu challenged the negotiators to drive a hard bargain with Iran. If the Iranians walk away from the table, let them. This often happens in a Persian bazaar, he said. They'll come back.
Netanyahu will never be able to escape this history, or the image that epitomizes it best: the swarthy, bewhiskered, turbaned denizen of the Eastern souk. He's venal, conniving, sneaky and unprincipled. Wander into a Persian bazaar and you'd better keep your hand on your pocketbook. That's a Persian for you. You've seen him in the movies, dozens of times.
But too much is at stake in these negotiations to allow them to be derailed by Netanyahu's limited perspective. And the chances of successful negotiations are imperiled by a failure to take into account two important elements: pride and grievance.
Pride: Modern Iranians see themselves as heirs to the great Persian empires of the past, which date back more than two millennia to the known-world-dominating Cyrus the Great, Darius and Xerxes. The glory days may seem long gone to us, but their legacy bestows on modern Iranians the sense that their culture deserves the same respect and privileges as any in the West. They will not respond to bullying, disrespect or condescension.
Grievance: Iranian history of the past century is dominated by Western interference, first by the British, who were eager to ensure a stable oil supply, and then by the United States, largely for the same reason. Western support for the brutal, oppressive Pahlavi regime repeatedly quashed significant democratic impulses, creating a critical mass of discontent that made the 1979 Islamic revolution almost inevitable.
Modern Iran, cursed by oil, looks the way it does largely because of Western policies. This isn't Blame-America-First; it's history. And negotiations that don't take these factors into account aren't likely to succeed.
Nevertheless, the last thing the world needs is a nuclear-armed Iran. Or the war that might be required to keep that from happening.
Netanyahu turned to literature again to express this important juncture. But Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is an odd choice. Frost's persona is looking back wistfully at an almost-random selection between two options. He chose the road slightly "less traveled by/And that has made all the difference."
Our choice is different. One road involves stereotyping the opponent, minimizing his interests and ignoring the context of the negotiations. This road often leads to war, and we've traveled it many times.
The "less traveled" road involves firm but fair and informed diplomacy. It has at least a chance of getting to peace, and if it doesn't we'll still have plenty of time to fight later.
Let's give this road a try, for a change.