Over the past few weeks, while I’ve been writing about the plight of Palestinians, events affecting Israel have proceeded worldwide: The Second Durban Conference on Racism in Geneva, the AIPAC annual conference in Washington, Pope Benedict XVI’s long visit to the Middle East, and meetings by both President Shimon Peres and, yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Obama in the Oval Office. Some key events and remarks quickly describe the world as it is now.
On Monday April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, at the Durban II meeting, Iranian leader Ahmadinejad called Israel "cruel and racist;" dozens of Western diplomats walked out. He routinely denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and the U.S., Canada, and Israel had already refused to attend. Peres denounced him and the meeting in his usual quiet, sad way: "Criticism of the Jewish State is also tinged with chilling anti-Semitism. Among those who collaborated with the Nazis, and those who stood by and let the Holocaust happen, there are those who criticize the one state that rose to grant refuge to Holocaust survivors. The one state that will prevent another Holocaust." He went on, "The gas has dissipated, but the poison remains. There are still Holocaust deniers and hot-headed skinheads in the world, those who bear the sort of visceral hatred that leads to racist murder."
On May 4 Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff born of Israeli parents, told AIPAC that "Iran is the number-one threat to the Middle East," but he went on to say that Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is necessary if Iran is to be countered effectively. This was extremely disturbing to many Jewish observers. A few days later Alan Dershowitz wrote in the New York Post, “Rahm Emanuel is a good man and a good friend of Israel, but in a highly publicized recent statement he linked American efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons to Israeli efforts toward establishing a Palestinian state. This is dangerous…Emanuel has it exactly backwards: if there is any linkage, it goes the other way – defanging Iran will promote the end of the occupation and the two-state solution. Threatening not to help Israel in relation to Iran unless it moves toward a two-state solution first is likely to backfire.”
May 6 was the date of Peres’ meeting with Obama, and he cautioned the American president that the world must view the Iranian threat as similar to that of Nazi Germany before the Second World War. "Iran is a threat not just to Israel, but to the whole world. As Jews, after being subjected to the Holocaust, we cannot close our eyes in light of the grave danger emerging from Iran . . . If Europe had dealt seriously with Hitler at that time, the terrible Holocaust and the loss of millions of people could have been avoided. We can't help but make the comparison.” He also explained to reporters the rapidly changing framework in the Middle East. "I told [Obama] that a great change has begun, because today most of the Sunni world does not see the problem as Israel, but Iran.”
On May 8, Al-Quds al-Arabiyeh reported that Egyptian security forces had found hundreds of weapons and explosive devices hidden along the border between Israel and the Sinai Peninsula, including 266 rockets, 40 mines, 50 mortar shells, 20 hand grenades and at least three anti-aircraft missiles.
On May 10, Prime Minister Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel must ease restrictions on West Bank Palestinians: "I think we need to make a big effort, within the given security constraints, to make things easier for the Palestinians." He said he would try to minimize "bureaucratic red tape" to help advance the Palestinian economy.
Also on May 10, on ABC television, U.S. National Security Advisor James Jones told George Stephanopolous something very similar to what Emanuel said to AIPAC. "There are a lot of things that you can do to diminish that existential threat by working hard towards achieving a two-state solution." He elaborated on the idea that a solution between Israel and the Palestinians could reduce the Iranian threat. This now appears to be Obama administration policy, and as Dershowitz points out, it is exactly backwards.
On May 12 Pope Benedict, who had once been a member of the Hitler Youth and then served in the Nazi army, visited the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He said: "One can rob a neighbor of possessions, opportunity or freedom. One can weave an insidious web of lies . . . Yet, try as one might, one can never take away the name of a fellow human being. May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten! And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this!" But he was criticized by Holocaust survivors for saying that Jews had been “killed,” instead of “murdered.” Rabbi Lau, who directs the memorial, went on to say that the speech "didn't have a single word of condolence, compassion or sharing the pain of the Jewish people as such. There was a lot about the pain of humanity, cosmopolitan words." During his long visit to the region, the pope spoke up repeatedly for Palestinians, but did not say clearly that there should be a Jewish state.
The same day, it was reliably reported that Iran has deployed surface-to-air and surface-to-sea missile batteries in the Persian Gulf to defend itself against an attack on its nuclear facilities. It was also reported that Iran has the capability to deliver missiles to Israeli cities.
On May 17, former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf said on CNN that it is a mistake for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq. “It’s not that easy, the situation is not that simple . . . We have to see the whole region. We have to see the effect of leaving. First of all, within Iraq, there’s a Shi’a community, there’s a Sunni community, there’s a Kurd community. What are the sensitivities of Turkey against the Kurds? What is the linkage of the Shi’a with Iran? What is the linkage of these with Hezbollah in Lebanon? What effect will it create in Lebanon? And then, what effect will it create in the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia? We need to analyze all this very deliberately and not take any action . . . that will destabilize the whole region.” In talking so broadly, Musharaf did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike the Obama administration, he understands that conflict in this region does not revolve around Israel.
Finally, on May 18—yesterday—Netanyahu and Obama met, and despite pouring syrup over everything, they appeared to be at an impasse. Obama pushed Netanyahu to work harder on the peace process, and once again claimed that peace with the Palestinians would neutralize the Iranian threat. Netanyahu reminded Obama that Iran’s accelerating nuclearization threatens the entire region, and that it cannot be allowed to reach its logical conclusion. Current efforts to talk to Iran are accomplishing nothing. Coming months may reveal a deepening rift between the way these two leaders see the world—the difference being that only one of them has his country’s life at stake.