Israel on sidelines as world rushes to embrace Iran's Rouhani

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu insists Iranian President Rouhani's message of moderation is a ruse.

Ammar Awad/AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sept. 17, 2013.

A day after newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave a speech at the United Nations acknowledging the Holocaust and declaring Iran had no intention of building a nuclear bomb, an Israeli cartoon featured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trudging to the United Nations asking himself, “Where is Mahmoud [Ahmadinejad] when I need him?” 

After all, it wasn’t too hard to convince other world powers – particularly the US – that the guy who denied the Holocaust and talked about Israel being wiped off the map might not be someone whose finger you’d want on the trigger of a nuclear-armed country.

But Mr. Rouhani is much more measured and sophisticated, and his arrival on the world stage has been greeted with optimism, so Mr. Netanyahu’s usual rhetoric isn’t selling as well in the West this time.

But he has still resisted falling in line with world powers. 

“Iran thinks that soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb,” Netanyahu said in a statement after Rouhani’s speech Tuesday, declaring that Israel would welcome a “genuine” diplomatic solution. “But we will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran's continual pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the world should not be fooled either."

The history of the Holocaust – including the appeasement of Britain and France at the 1938 Munich conference – is seared into the mind of Israelis, many of whom have parents or grandparents who suffered the disastrous consequences of Europe’s failure to stop Hitler early on until Winston Churchill took charge in Britain. A strong majority of Israelis share Netanyahu’s concern over a nuclear Iran.

“It’s quite clear that Iran is under some economic pressure and they want to relieve pressure, so they say things which the gullible West is happy to listen to,” says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. “I think [Netanyahu] is trying to be the Churchill of the day.” 

But some are frustrated with his hard-line response to Rouhani’s speech last night, in which the Iranian president made a clear departure from the rhetoric of Mr. Ahmadinejad and acknowledged the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. They worry Israel will become the country painted as obstructionist as US Secretary of State John Kerry works on resuming negotiations with Tehran, per President Barack Obama's request.

“Netanyahu responded unwisely,” says Meir Litvak, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Muslim anti-Semitism, explaining that he should have encouraged the change in rhetoric.

“I think he has no trust whatsoever about whatever they say. I think he is haunted by the fear that we are going to face another Munich.”

Netanyahu ordered the entire Israeli delegation at the UN to boycott the speech by not attending, as was standard practice during Ahmadinejad's two terms. But given other countries' high expectations that Rouhani would turn a new page, some saw Netanyahu's decision as an overly drastic move that paints Israel as obstructionist. 

“In diplomacy, you don’t have to play all or nothing. You don’t have to have all the delegation [boycott the speech]. You can leave one diplomat,” says veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, now retired. “In a matter of months, we are the Iranians and they are the Israelis suddenly. I think it was a mistake.”

Even a key minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, Yair Lapid, criticized the move.

"Israel shouldn't be portrayed as a serial objector to negotiations, uninterested in peaceful solutions. We must make the Iranians be peace objectors,” said Mr. Lapid, the surprise star of Israeli elections earlier this year. “Leaving the UN Assembly is reminiscent of the ways Arab states behaved towards Israel."

It may well have been easier for Netanyahu if Ahmadinejad was back at the podium in New York, throwing a few juicy comments that were always disparaged by Western media.

“I think many Israelis including Netanyahu regard Rouhani as a more dangerous leader than Ahmadinejad because the world understood what was going on with Ahmadinejad,” says political scientist Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “With Rouhani … the world might be fooled.”

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