Holocaust Day - Olivier Fitoussi - April 18, 2012
Benjamin Netanyahu at Yad Vashem, April 18, 2012. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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To fully appreciate the strategic dispute regarding Iran at the highest level of Israeli leadership, all you have to do is read the transcripts of Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu's speeches last night at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. The president and the prime minister both mentioned Iran, but while Peres dedicated it one small paragraph, preferring to draw from the Holocaust lessons of Israel's duties to its non-Jewish citizens and the ideal of tikkun olam instead, Iran occupied nearly two thirds of Netanyahu's address.

This is what Peres said:

"Humanity has no choice, it must learn the lessons of the Holocaust and stand up to existential threats before it is too late. Iran is at the center of this threat, it is the center of terror. It poses a threat to world peace. There is no place to belittle Israel's acknowledged and hidden capabilities to deal with this threat."

In other words, Peres is sticking to the Sharon Doctrine that Iran is above all the problem of the international community, not just Israel. And the less said about the subject by Israeli leaders, the better. But don't think for a moment that if Israel has to deal with the problem on its own, it won't have the means to do so.

Peres surely knew what was coming next in the prime minister's speech. He still made it clear, in an oblique and diplomatic fashion that he is the veteran leader of the camp that includes the former defense and intelligence chiefs, which firmly opposes a military strike on Iran before the American administration is satisfied that all other options have been exhausted.

Many still suspect that tricky Shimon is a deluded "peacenik" at heart and remember that he was against the 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. It would be useful to note though, that when Peres was elected president, the entire communication system at the residence was replaced so he could have "black material" delivered and Hason Hason, a veteran intelligence officer was appointed as his military attaché. His monthly meetings with the Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo are not courtesy calls.

Netanyahu, as he has done in previous years on Holocaust Remembrance Day, lost little time in drawing the historical comparison. This time though, he went a step further and launched on a lengthy reckoning with those "who do not like when I speak such uncomfortable truths. They prefer that we not speak of a nuclear Iran as an existential threat."

He asked whether "these people lost all faith in the people of Israel?" and accused them that they "have learned nothing from the Holocaust." Here also he had an historical comparison. Netanyahu likened himself to the Likud's spiritual father, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who warned the Jews of Poland in the 1930s of the impending storm "but the leading Jewish intellectuals of the day ridiculed Jabotinsky, and rather than heed his warning, they attacked him." So now, Israeli politicians who disagree with Netanyahu on Iran are being equated to those who failed to foresee the Holocaust.

He didn't mention Barack Obama by name but Netanyahu also had a historical comparison for the American president. He is the equivalent of Jan Karski, leader of the Polish resistance who refused to speak up on behalf of his Jewish compatriots.

"Karski was a decent, sensitive man, and they begged him to appeal to the conscience of the world against the Nazi crimes. They described what was happening, they showed him, but to no avail. They said: 'Help us. We have no country of our own, we have no government, and we even have no voice among the nations.'”

He also had an answer for "those who believe that the unique evil of the Holocaust should never be invoked in discussing other threats facing the Jewish people. To do so, they argue, is to belittle the Holocaust and to offend its victims." To them Netanyahu said:

"Not only does the Prime Minister of Israel have the right, when speaking of these existential dangers, to invoke the memory of a third of our nation which was annihilated. It is his duty."

And he made it clear that he is resolutely opposed to the Sharon-Peres doctrine.

"The truth is that a nuclear-armed Iran is a political threat to other countries throughout the region and a grave threat to the world peace. The truth is that Iran must be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons. It is the duty of the whole world, but above and beyond, it is OUR duty (caps in the official transcript)."

Those who still believe that Netanyahu is bluffing should read the entire speech and remember he is the son of Jabotinsky's secretary and a historian of Jewish suffering.