From Rabin to Rice

In the long run, Israel will benefit from the crazed threats emanating from Ahmadinejad.

The Islamic Jihad terror bombing in Hadera provides ample evidence that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not just spouting rhetoric when he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." He means it, which is why Iran (and Syria) back Islamic Jihad. It is also one of the reasons he is determined to achieve an Iranian nuclear capability. Ultimately, he might try to destroy Israel in one massive attack; in the meantime, he'll back the terrorists who target Israelis one or 10 at a time. The Iranians are dead serious. Eradicating Israel and developing atomic weapons are two not unrelated issues on which the president, the reformists and the mullahs tend to agree. Of course, they say they only want peaceful nuclear reactors to produce energy, a transparent piece of nonsense from a country that is floating in oil. Ironically, the president's statement will only increase Israel's standing among young Iranians. Israel (like America) is already popular with them because their operating assumption is that if the mullahs, or their puppets, are opposed to something, it must be good. That is why Israel's Farsi-language radio service is so popular in Iran today. The mullahs despise Israel so the kids like it. In the long run, Israel will benefit from the crazed threats emanating from the president. In the short term, the threat is real. The Iranian government's intentions toward Israel are nothing less than genocidal. Successive Israeli governments have been aware of the threat from Iran from the time the Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah in 1979. That is why Israel was pulling for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. As dangerous and malevolent as Saddam Hussein was, Iran was the more immediate threat (especially after Israel destroyed Saddam's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981). Today, with Saddam gone, Iran remains the one significant threat to Israel's existence. Allied with Syria, backing Islamic Jihad, the threat is not remote. Its proxies give it access to the Israeli-Palestinian arena and its missiles will, very soon, give it the ability to skip the middle men. That is unless it is stopped, either by pressure from the international community or some other way. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice understands that. "Iran," she says, "is a destabilizing force in the international system and we need unity of purpose, unity of message to Iran to stop those activities." ALMOST 10 YEARS to the day since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, it is worth recalling that it was the Iranian threat that, to a significant extent, pushed Rabin to move swiftly toward negotiations with the Palestinians when he assumed office in 1992. Rabin understood that the most serious threat to Israel came not from its immediate neighbors but from Iran (and back then Iraq). He also understood that as hostile as the Palestinians were to Israel, the ones that mattered were reconciled to its existence. Their goal (once they accepted the two-state idea in 1988) was achieving statehood in the West Bank/Gaza. Rabin hoped that, within five years, he could have achieved peace with the Palestinians and thereby removed Iran's pretext for an attack on Tel Aviv. It didn't happen. Rabin was assassinated, and with him went the chance of achieving a final status agreement on schedule. But the chance to achieve Rabin's goal remains. In fact, the withdrawal from Gaza makes it even more likely. SADLY, THE strong possibility exists that this opportunity will not be seized. Earlier this week the US and EU's Middle East envoy, James Wolfensohn - who is coordinating international donor support for the Palestinians - criticized Israel's foot-dragging on the matter of easing freedom of movement and the PA's continuing failure on the security front. "Without a dramatic improvement in Palestinian movement and access, within appropriate security arrangements for Israel, the economic revival essential to a resolution of the conflict will not be possible," he said. And, reports Haaretz, he "criticized the Palestinian Authority" for "the internal anarchy and the decline in the PA's functioning." He said that "these factors, combined with the lack of Palestinian mobility, will take a toll on donor countries' willingness to honor their pledges." "Time is short, and optimism is a fragile commodity," he wrote. If the parties involved "miss this opportunity for change, we will regret it for the next decade." Wolfensohn's warning might have disappeared into the ether but for Secretary of State Rice's strong endorsement of it. Wolfensohn, she said, is "simply asking the parties to do everything they can now that the Israelis are out of the Gaza to make sure that Gaza is going to be a place where Palestinians can see a different kind of life and therefore start to build the foundations for a Palestinian state... borders need to get freed up so that the kind of economic program we all want to see in the Palestinian territories can begin," she said. "The crossings issues need to get resolved." If anyone can push the two sides to get their act together, it is Rice. Israelis and Palestinians both view her as America's "Iron Lady." Their perception is that when she wants to, she gets the job done. (Both sides recall that it was Rice who, after watching a presentation on the security barrier's unnecessary impingement on Palestinian daily life, got its planned route changed almost overnight.) She can provide the same kind of leadership on Gaza. The United States must not let the post-Gaza opportunity disappear, and not only out of concern for Israelis and Palestinians. Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will reduce at least some of the impetus behind the Iraq insurgency. And it would begin the process of neutralizing the threats emanating from Teheran. (The Iranians themselves have said that any agreement the Palestinians accept will be okay with them. Hutzpa, yes. But also significant.) Progress on Gaza won't end the insurgency and it won't stop the genocidal intentions of Ahmadinejad. But, combined with other actions, it's a start. When the stakes are this high, even small steps can make a big difference.