President Shimon Peres on Tuesday criticized Columbia University for hosting Iran's president, comparing the event to attempts to engage Adolf Hitler in dialogue before World War Two.
During his speech at the university in New York on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Amhadinejad attacked Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and denied his country's nuclear program was aimed at building atomic weapons.
Ahmadinejad has come under international criticism for saying that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and has questioned whether the Nazi Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews actually took place.
Introducing the Iranian president, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger said Ahmadinejad behaved as a "petty and cruel dictator" and that his Holocaust denials suggested he was either "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated".
Bollinger asked a string of pointed questions, most of which Ahmadinejad ignored in a speech that dwelt at length on science as a gift from God and the importance of using knowledge and learning purely and in a pious way.
But Peres said Columbia's invitation to the Iranian leader did not fall under the umbrella of free academic expression because Ahmadinejad "simply stood up and lied."
"I think that Columbia University made a mistake ... With Hitler there was a dialogue. [British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain went to talk to him. What did it help? It helped cover the fact that Hitler prepared concentration camps and death camps," Peres told Reuters.
"I don't accept the university's explanations, because if a university is a platform where lies are permissible, then it is not academic ... So all of yesterday's show was wretched," Peres said.
Iranians: Harsh words by Columbia president to Ahmadinejad unjustifiedIranians on Tuesday called Bollinger's combative introduction of Ahmadinejad shameful and said the harsh words only added to their image of the United States as a bully.
In a region where the tradition of hospitality outweighs personal opinions toward a person, many in Iran thought Bollinger's aggressive tone - including telling Ahmadinejad that he exhibited the signs of a petty and cruel dictator - was over the top.
"The surprising point of the meeting is the behavior of the university president. Before a speech by president Ahmadinejad the chancellor criticized President Ahmadinejad, resorting to a statement full of insult, which was mostly Zionists' propaganda against Iran," state-run radio reported.
The chancellors of seven Iranian universities issued a letter on Tuesday to Bollinger saying his statements were deeply shameful and invited him to come to Iran.
In the letter, they asked him to provide responses to 10 questions ranging from: "Why did the U.S. support the bloodthirsty dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iraqi-imposed war on Iran?" to "Why has the U.S. military failed to find al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden even with all its advanced equipment?"
In response to Bollinger's harsh words, Ahmadinejad smiled at first but then decried the insults and unfriendly treatment.
While Ahmadinejad likely expected at worst a hostile grilling by the audience, Bollinger's sardonic comments reflected a blatant disregard for the tradition of hospitality revered in the Middle East. His comments may deflect some of the U.S. criticism he got for issuing the invitation to the Iranian president, but it could also backfire by drawing sympathy for Ahmedinejad, even in quarters where he would normally be sharply criticized.
"I don't know why he (Ahmadinejad) stayed there and did not leave the meeting. Their attitude was an insult to the nature of the meeting. They should not treat him as a suspect," said Mahmoud Rouhi, a nurse, in Tehran. Though state media did not broadcast Monday's event live in Farsi, state-run TV showed a recorded version on Tuesday.
"The meeting and their approach showed that Americans, even in a cultural position, work as cowboy and nothing more," said Rasoul Qaresi, customer of a grocery in Tehran downtown.
Ahmadinejad's international allies have also taken his side. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is expecting a visit from Ahmadinejad later this week, said he spoke by phone with the Iranian leader on Monday after his tense showdown at Columbia University in New York.
"I congratulate him, in the name of the Venezuelan people, before a new aggression of the U.S. empire," Chavez said, adding that it seemed Ahmadinejad was the subject of an ambush.
Ahmadinejad is set to address the U.N. General Assembly later Tuesday. Thousands of people protested Ahmadinejad's visit Monday and more were expected to rally in the streets Tuesday when the Iranian leader attends the meeting for the third time in three years.
For more on Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University:Iranian President: If Holocaust happened, why must Palestinians pay?ANALYSIS: The clear loser from Ahmadinejad's visit is Israel
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