Up until a few months ago, no one even recognized the name, let alone knew how to pronounce it.
But one controversial speech has placed Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad on everyone’s tongues, sparking diplomatic clashes across the world and giving Iran more negative attention than the country needs right now.
Wipe Israel off the map, was the message conveyed by the Iranian president, adding that this is a realistic goal.
For Western observers, the fact that there is no love lost between Iran and Israel could not justify the vehement comments of the hard-line leader, delivered to some 3,000 Iranian students.
Israel is regarded as a rogue state by many Arab countries. This opinion is shared even by residents of countries which hold peace agreements with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan.
Still, the Iranian president’s remarks did not get wall-to-wall praise from the Arab press. Whether they agree that Israel should be “wiped out” or not, many writers deemed Ahmadi Nejad’s comments unwise, badly timed and counterproductive.
An editorial in the Arab daily Arab News called his remarks “certainly undiplomatic.” However, the editor added that the wave of worldwide condemnations and fury looked contrived and that they will use his rhetoric to up the ante on Iran.
Ahmadi Nejad, the editorial said, simply wants to divert attention from his government’s failure to address problems of the poor. “The danger is that with such rhetoric he gives his nations’ enemies the chance to act.”
Other opinion pieces were not as mild.
Ahmad Rub’i, writing for the London-based A-Sharq Al-Awsat pondered over how this amazing feat of eliminating Israel can be achieved, after thousands of Arabs have already lost their lives fighting Israel.
One suggestion, he said, is to mobilize Iranian forces to Israel. But this might be problematic, he points out, as it will warrant consent from some Arab countries to let the troops pass through their territory, countries which have agreements with Israel and support a two-state solution.
A second option is to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, he proposes, a strategy which will inevitably harm Israel’s Arab neighbors, as “the bomb does not honor international borders.”
The president is the only one who will cancel Israel out, Rub’i writes. “All the Arabs, and most importantly the leaders of the Palestinian cause adopt a peace agreement with Israel.”
He commented that whatever the president’s intentions, his remarks will cause more damage than good. “Even if Israel invested millions, it couldn’t have achieved half the success of what the Iranian’s president’s statements did, and it used this wisely to block Iran.”
Rub’i has nothing flattering to say about Israel. It is a hostile country, he writes, “but its enemies grant it free services on a golden platter. The Iranian president’s remarks were a gift from heaven for the Israeli media to continue its campaign of deception and trickery.”
He continues, “The most dangerous thing about this, is that the Iranian president has given Israel and America enough justifications to propose a plan to attack Iran’s nuclear factories, on grounds that they are a threat to the international community.”
This view was also apparent in the following cartoon, which appeared in Arab News, showing an Israeli nuclear warhead protecting itself from harm with Ahmadi Nejad’s remarks.
Meanwhile, Bassim Sakijha, a commentator for the Jordanian daily A-Dustour, was less critical of the controversial comments in his commentary entitled ‘Yes to Ahmadi Nejad.’
“The world is up in arms over Ahmadi Nejad’s remarks,” he said, “but doesn’t bat an eyelid over Israel’s elimination of Palestine, not just from the map, but from human consciousness.”
Israel is an artificial state, he argues, and has no right to exist on a land it does not own.
Israeli commentators were quick to compare the Iranian president to one of history’s despised figures. “This open call for Israel’s extermination sharpens the unavoidable comparison with another leader who was elected by his people in 1933, despite a program that called openly for the extermination of the Jewish people,” wrote the editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz.
The notion that, in 2005, it is possible to speak about wiping Israel off the map is not something that can be shrugged off, he added.
But A-Dustour’s Sakijha stresses, as many diplomats and spin-doctors did shortly after the comments were publicized, that Ahmadi Nejad did not target Jews in his speech. “They are humans who deserve to find their place on earth, even in Palestine, but not in Israel,” a name which he believes represents arrogance and “demonic thoughtlessness.”
“The oranges of Jaffa still flow in our blood,” he wrote. “The souls of our forefathers are still prisoners in graves, awaiting liberation when that loathsome word is removed from the map – ‘Israel.’”
The Iranian media, which is heavily restricted by the regime, did not do much to tone down the president’s remarks. In the days after the event, the Iranian media published several statements by senior officials, who reiterated the president’s comments and unequivocally justified them.
MP Ahmad Tavakoli was quoted by the Iranian Student News Agency, saying the call to eliminate Israel is nothing new. “It has strong logic,” he explained in an item translated by the Meepas think tank. “It is talking about a bloodthirsty regime which defends itself with terrorism and does as it wishes while supported by the West.”