While the call this past week by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to “wipe Israel off the map,” should not come as total surprise, it could suggest a dangerous shift in Iran’s policy toward Israel. In any case, such a grotesque breach of international conduct by Mr. Ahmadinejad adds considerably to the instability in the Middle East, especially while Iran continues to pursue vigorously its nuclear program in defiance of the international community.
Israel, for its part, has every reason to believe that Iran means exactly what it says. Both Hitler’s design to wipe out the entire Jewish population and that of Milosevic to do the same to the Muslims of Kosovo are etched in the memories of each of these peoples. In the context of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks, Israel will now take Iran’s nuclear program far more seriously, as should the rest of the world. An Iran in possession of a nuclear device that professes the desire to eliminate Israel presents an ominous danger not only to Israel but to the entire region. Indeed, some Israelis view the president’s call to “wipe Israel off the map,” coupled with Iran’s public encouragement and direct support of Islamic groups’ like Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks against Israel, as tantamount to a declaration of war. Israel’s Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom’s statement in response, that Iran poses “a clear and present danger,” should send an obvious message to Tehran that Israel will not wait to be second guessed about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, the recklessly dangerous pronouncement of Iran’s leader simply underscores for many other nations besides Israel Iran’s rogue nation status. Israeli officials I spoke with argue that their main concern is the vehemence of Ahmadinejad’s language and the timing of his statement, which came on the heels of another suicide bombing. This has to be also considered in light of Iran’s consistent denunciations of Israel, its active support of terrorism, and, of course, its vigorous pursuit of nuclear weapons. In this context with these other factors, the statement cannot be taken lightly or dismissed. This is why it is critical that Iran must not be given the impression that after some diatribes against these remarks, most countries will go back to doing business as usual with Tehran. For this to be the end result is to court serious danger.
Although many nations, especially the European Community, quickly issued stinging rebukes of Iran, no one suggested any punitive action. Thus, Tehran has at present no incentive to restrain itself and in fact its leadership may even feel emboldened to intensify its subversive and terrorist activity throughout the region, believing it can do so with impunity.
In the region, with the exception of Egypt and the Palestinians, the rest of the Arab states remained silent. But every single head of every Arab state or the Arab League should have condemned the president Ahmadinejad and assured Israel of their commitment to its right to exist and ultimately to a negotiated settlement based on a two-state solution; that did not happen.
The European community should have recalled their ambassadors in Iran, even if for a short period, to demonstrate their utter indignation and also have warned Tehran of serious punitive actions should it not correct its ways; that did not happen.
The United Nations Security Council correctly passed a unanimous resolution condemning Iran’s statement. But some leading member states, France and Germany, in particular, should have threatened to support the expulsion of Iran from the UN for violating its commitment as a member nation to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state;” that did not happen.
Finally, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, correctly rejected Ahmadinejad’s comments, stating that “the Palestinian people recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist and I reject his comments. The whole world has accepted the two-state solution and Iran should accept the same principle.” While these sentiments are laudable, President Abbas should have been the one to condemn Iran and to demand that Tehran end its direct support of the Palestinian extremists who undermine his own peace efforts; and that did not happen.
If the Palestinian problem must be considered “the most central issue of the Islamic community, the region, and to some extent, the world community” as the leader of Iran’s Expediency Council Chairman Rafsanjani has stated, perhaps he should think again whether threatening Israel, as his president did, really serves Palestinian interests. The answer at the moment is clear: Iran’s policy toward Israel has worked to the detriment of the Palestinians, affecting most adversely their welfare and well-being. Every suicide bomber that Tehran so proudly helped dispatch against Israel has set the Palestinian cause backward. Threatening Israel’s existence so openly and unequivocally will do nothing but harden the hard-liners in Israel while pushing the left and center to the right. In addition, the inclination within Israel to make concessions to ease Palestinian hardships will lessen, especially when such statements come within hours of another suicide bombing killing innocent men, women and children in Israel.
The efforts by some Iranian officials to put a different spin on what their president said does not change the thrust of what was said and its potential implications. During my recent conversation on this subject with Imad Rezek, an expert in strategic affairs at Tehran University, who often echoes the official government line, insisted that the statement merely concerned the need to change the Zionist regime in Israel, which he added is no different than America’s desire to change the regime in Iran. Jews and Palestinian Arabs should live together in a democratic state governed by the majority, which he predicted to me would be made up of Palestinians; it is as laughable postulation as it is tragic. An Israeli democratic state with a sustainable Jewish identity and majority is not negotiable.
But such attempts to provide a rationale for Ahmadinejad’s behavior may be an exercise in futility. Whether his pugnacious comment is a sign of political immaturity, represents an attempt to consolidate his political base, is meant to inject the public with a high dose of frenzy to make them forget what ails them, or if it actually signals a clear shift in Iran’s policy toward Israel, Iran’s president is playing with fire. In fact, it is precisely because of these ominous and misguided threats that Iran, not Israel, should feel more vulnerable today than before.
The European Community, Russia, and the United States in particular should take special heed of what has been said and not done and do what they must if they chose to diminish the potential of regional disaster.