Saeb Erekat, who used to be the Palestinians' chief negotiator with Israel in the days when we were negotiating, called out across the room to Muhammad Larijani.
Erekat had already given an emotional speech at the lunch, pleading, in turn, for international, Israeli and Arab support for a two-state solution to our conflict. He had also expressed shame over the Fatah-Hamas infighting, calling it "the darkest chapter in Palestinian history" and placing responsibility not only at Israel's door but also at that of the PA for failing "to impose one authority, one gun, one rule of law."
And now he was appealing directly to a former Iranian deputy foreign minister, the most prominent representative from Teheran in the room. "Larijani," he urged, "help us - by talking about adding Palestine to the map, instead of canceling Israel from the map."
The lunch was being held at the World Economic Forum's annual Middle East gathering, on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, last weekend. The event is an unusual feature of the conference calendar, in that it brings together hundreds of Arab politicians, officials, businessfolk and journalists, with a large number of international participants and a small contingent of Israelis.
In years past, countries like Iran and Syria, disinclined to risk any hard-to-regulate contacts with the West in the easy-going atmosphere, have either spurned efforts by Israeli journalists to talk to their representatives, or have stayed away from the conferences altogether. This year, with the Iranians, was different. They were present; they were talking; they were exuding confidence.
Teheran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, spoke at a major WEF session, and was understood to have vowed that Iran was not seeking to eliminate Israel.
"Every primary school student knows that it is not possible to remove a country from the map," and, "We are not talking about the invasion of any country," the foreign minister said, in comments that he subsequently and implausibly "clarified" as having been intended to relate not to Israel but, rather, to Palestine. Puzzled? You should be.
And Larijani, whose brother Ali is Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and who himself heads the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics in Teheran, chatted easily with guests at the lunch, dedicated to the subject of "Peace, Stability and International Relations," holding forth along with Erekat and Arab League head Amr Moussa.
Larijani didn't duck Erekat's plea for "help," either. "We are not in a position to decide for the Palestinians," he responded. "We are here to support them." Any agreement acceptable to the Palestinians, he indicated, would be acceptable to Iran.
Unlike Mottaki, he didn't subsequently attempt to backtrack from the comments. Indeed, he went further. In a rare, perhaps unprecedented, conversation with an Israeli journalist, he elaborated on them to me.
I had taken a seat at a table close to his and, before the eating and the speaking began in earnest, walked over and introduced myself. I told Larijani my name, country and job, showed him my conference badge with the words "Jerusalem Post, Israel" and proffered my hand. He shook it and agreed to talk.
He assured me Israel had "nothing to fear" from Teheran's nuclear program, and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had made plain that "Iran will not be the one" to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Were Israel and the Palestinian to reach a viable settlement, he said, Iran would back it. "When peace will come, Iran will be part of it."
It was a position he chose not to repeat to the room as a whole, however, when I directly asked him to do so during the public question and answer session.
A small, calm man with a good command of English, he spoke to me again after the lunch was over - after he had assured the gathering that Iran would "never" seek nuclear weapons, but cockily announced that his country was now happy to build nuclear reactors for any brother Arab state that might need one for energy purposes.
I waited for him along with a reporter who was covering the conference for The Associated Press, and asked him whether he could envisage a day when Iran would recognize Israel. "This is a premature question," he said, but added that his previous responses constituted an answer of sorts.
The way Larijani told it, his president had been misunderstood in his position on Israel, and had spoken of "erasing the practices" followed by Israel against the Palestinians, rather than erasing the Jewish state. The way Larijani told it, Ahmadinejad had been misunderstood, as well, on the matter of the Holocaust, and was no anti-Semite.
No matter that Ahmadinejad publicly called for Israel's erasure at a 2005 conference held under the English title "The World Without Zionism," or that he recently hosted a Holocaust denial conference. The president, according to Larijani, was a victim of poor reporting.
All of this, of course, was self-serving in the extreme. I didn't pressure Larijani in any way to depart from the Iranian norm and speak to me, and he would not have done so had he not been dispatched to Jordan precisely to display a more approachable, ostensibly rational face of the regime.
I had a more sincere conversation with another Iranian at the conference, an academic who has spent some years studying in the US and one of whose teachers, Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, was arrested in Teheran earlier this month and charged on Monday with setting up a network to overthrow the ayatollahs.
This young Iranian is no fan of the regime. Nevertheless, he too assured me that Teheran was not bent on wiping Israel out. It more commonly argues, he said, that we will implode like the former Soviet Union.
Neither, in his assessment, would the regime use a nuclear weapon against Israel, because of a fear of our second-strike capability. In contrast to Prof. Bernard Lewis's assertion, delivered to the Post recently, that the notion of mutual assured destruction constitutes a veritable inducement rather than a deterrent to Iran's apocalyptic Islamist regime, this Iranian asserted that the Islamic Republic's ultimate rationality was demonstrated by its decision not to use biological or chemical weapons even at the price of losing its war with Iraq, which did employ chemical weapons, in the 1980s.
Yet Iran sacrificed hundreds of thousands of its own people in extending that war for six years after an Iraqi cease-fire offer, in a bid to spread the Islamic revolution to Iraq, and it sent tens of thousands of its own youngsters to their deaths in that war, clutching plastic keys to paradise, charging artillery units or clearing minefields. And that fight was not against the reviled Jewish nation.
OF COURSE it may be that Iran feels it has found a more immediate way to expedite Israel's demise: short-range missiles.
Ten months after the last round, Israel is again under attack - again across a border where we have no territorial stake and to which we withdrew unilaterally.
Again, our leadership chose not to sound an international alarm as arms were brought in for use against us. Again, there was no public diplomacy, no effective campaign at the UN or through other forums. Again, our offensive capability is documented by the international media, while the enemy keeps its aggressions off-camera.
Again, our enemies are based within civilian areas, bragging as they kill and traumatize our citizens and pleading for international protection and solidarity when our efforts to stop them create casualties there. Again, much of a watching world is either told nothing at all about the unprovoked attacks that have made Sderot a ghost town, or misinformed that the attacks from Gaza are almost harmless and the Israeli response disproportionate.
Again, the government has neglected the home front, failing to ensure adequate bomb shelters and other protection ahead of time, or evacuation routes when the rockets rain in, and has been shown up again in its incompetence by private philanthropic intervention.
Again, we are being out-maneuvered in the asymmetrical conflicts our enemies have astutely learned to wage against us.
Fighting these new wars is a test for Israeli ingenuity like few we have faced in the past. Some would have us sending heavy ground forces into the treacherous alleyways of Gaza. Others call for the killing of all who tie themselves to Hamas and the other terror groups, or for intensified air strikes, or for turning off the Strip's electricity and water supplies.
But what Israel needs most is wise counsel at the helm. We have the military might to end the rocket attacks in an instant. The challenge is to employ that strength and other strategies wisely - to stop the killers and to achieve long-term security when the Palestinians' own leadership is energetically preaching extremism and violence.
Conundrums equally complex are posed in the North as well. There, too, we need wise counsel to gauge Damascus's intentions and capabilities - to chart a course for peace if it is attainable and, if necessary, to deter or prevail in a conflict on that front. We need wise counsel to utilize the common ground that sees the leaderships in Jordan, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world increasingly fearful of Iranian domination, and to galvanize the rest of the international community to face down a threat that, Muhammad Larijani's platitudes notwithstanding, most definitely looms over Israel and far beyond.
Since last summer's ignominy, the IDF has begun a rapid process of reform, reequipping and retraining. At breakneck speed, the IDF is gearing up for a feared further deterioration.
But there has been no similar political house-cleaning. What we have is a leadership that is going after the state comptroller, spinning against this minister, weighing the narrow benefits of that presidential contender. What we have is a leadership preoccupied with internal party struggles and smears and survival at all cost, a leadership which demonstrated its shameful incompetence last summer and its cynical indifference in staying put since.
No wonder the Iranians are exuding confidence.
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