The embattled national figure is Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. His "critical decision" is that of declaring Israel's independence in 1948 despite the opposition of then U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall (yes, the man with the plan). It's a historical reference that is intended to draw immediate parallels to the contentious present, with Netanyahu set to make a controversial speech in Washington on the threat of Iran no matter the stated disapproval of the White House.
"Ben-Gurion -- contrary to the State Department's position -- announced the establishment of the state," the ad says. "Would we be here today if Ben-Gurion hadn’t done the right thing?" It then flashes the slogan: “Only the Likud, Only Netanyahu.”
Confronted with an election he very well may lose, the Israeli premier is doubling down on his supposed security chops. The gambit is to be expected, given Netanyahu's penchant for ungainly historical metaphors. But it's a reference that may surprise Americans, who consider their nation an ever-present ally of Israel.
In fairness, the United States was the first country to de facto recognize Israel -- just 11 minutes after Israel had declared its independence at 12:01 on May 15, 1948. But the days preceding that moment had been fraught and acrimonious in the White House.
In the aftermath of World War II, President Harry Truman was faced with two competing camps at loggerheads over how to deal with the question of Palestine, from where the beleaguered British intended to withdraw.
One camp favored the Jewish Agency's desire to create Israel, a Jewish state, both out of moral obligation following the horrors of the Holocaust as well as political expediency, given the need to woo Jewish-American voters. Truman appeared well-disposed to this position. In November 1945, he offered this riposte to American diplomats cautioning him against embracing the cause of Zionism: "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents."
The other camp, represented by Marshall, sided with the British proposal to cede Palestine to U.N. trusteeship, or administration. Otherwise, they feared an all-out war between Jewish settlers and neighboring Arab states -- already, in the years prior, Jewish militias were attacking and seizing Arab villages and land and violence between the two sides was rife. They also feared the disruption of American oil imports from Arab countries. This appeared to be a consensus position among a considerable section of the U.S. security establishment.
As Mark Perry documented in Foreign Policy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had issued numerous reports on Palestine, some of which concluded that a Jewish state would present a headache for future American policy:
In late 1947, the JCS had written that “A decision to partition Palestine, if the decision were supported by the United States, would prejudice United States strategic interests in the Near and Middle East” to the point that “United States influence in the area would be curtailed to that which could be maintained by military force.” That is to say, the concern of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not with the security of Israel--but with the security of American lives.
Another JCS report published on March 31,1948, warned that a fledgling Israeli state would involve the United States "in a continuously widening and deepening series of operations intended to secure maximum Jewish objectives." Some subsequent historians have noted a current of latent anti-Semitism that perhaps ran through the blue-blooded American establishment, and influenced their opposition toward the creation of a separate Jewish state.
In mid-March 1948, after a U.N. special commission informed the Security Council that it had been unable to arrange compromise between Jews and Arabs, the American envoy to the U.N. announced that partition was no longer viable. This flew in the face of private assurances Truman had given leading Zionist figures that the U.S. would back the creation of a Jewish state. "The State Dept. pulled the rug from under me today," Truman wrote in his diary.
In the days ahead of Israel's declaration of independence, the dispute in the White House got so heated that Marshall, a figure Truman considered "the greatest living American," even told the president that he would vote against him in a future election on grounds of this disagreement. But the camp in favor of recognizing Israel ultimately won out, and it appears a reluctant Marshall was persuaded to back down from his stubborn position. A full account of the tense proceedings, co-authored by the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, can be found here.
"Israel was going to come into existence whether or not Washington recognized it," Holbrooke wrote in The Washington Post in 2008. "But without American support from the very beginning, Israel's survival would have been at even greater risk."
The Likud ad, seen in this light, is a bit odd. The threat posed now by Iran's putative nuclear program, as summed up by Israel's own intelligence agency, is far from the existential dilemma faced by a fledgling Jewish state in 1948. And Ben-Gurion did not declare his nation's independence in Washington, an act of conspicuous provocation. Netanyahu, on the other hands, intends just that -- and has been criticized for his perceived opportunism both in the United States and Israel.