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Does Israel suffer from 'Iranophobia'?

Some Israelis argue that an 'Iranophobia' holds unnecessary sway over Israeli thinking about a wide range of problems, from rearming of Hezbollah to the 'terrorist' activists aboard the Gaza flotilla. Should Israel see less of a threat in Iran?

By Staff writer / June 18, 2010

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 13.

Uriel Sinai/AP

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Tel Aviv, Israel

Barely a day goes by without a strident warning from a top Israeli official, politician, or general about the nature of the “threat” Iran poses to the Jewish state. It’s unprecedented. Or it’s imminent. Or it’s existential. And it is declared to be behind every Israeli problem, from the rearming of Hezbollah in Lebanon to the “terrorist” humanitarian activists aboard the Gaza flotilla.

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How powerful is that anti-Iran mindset in Israel? How is fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon heightened by the blasts of anti-Israel invective from the neoconservative government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran?

“We are making them stronger than they are,” says David Menashri, the director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. “To refer to Iran as an ‘existential threat’ – I refuse to use this term – you give Iran greater credit than they deserve.... What signal does it send to our own people, that the day Iran should have nuclear weapons you should leave the country, because your existence is threatened?”

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Dr. Menashri says Israeli politicians should “speak less” about Iran, and not make exaggerated historical comparisons. He points to a conference in 2006, at which then-opposition leader and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned repeatedly: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.”

Menashri says the analogy is a mistake. “Because if Ahmadinejad is Hitler, if Nasser was Hitler, Saddam was Hitler, Arafat was Hitler – what can I tell my children about the unique character of the Holocaust? If I want to keep the memory, I am downgrading the historical significance of the Holocaust by repeating that every crazy thing is Hitler.”

Still, for politicians in Israel there are few downsides to demonizing Iran, whose leaders for 31 years have described the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” which will one day “vanish from the face of time” – or in one rendering of those remarks, be “wiped from the map.”

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