JERUSALEM, Oct. 30 (JTA) — Israel often comes under international criticism for its counterterrorist and settlement-building policies. But comments by Iran’s president calling for Israel’s destruction have elicited international sympathy for the Jewish state. In itself, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call, at a televised anti-Zionist rally in Tehran last week, for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map” wasn’t so new, a reiteration of the traditional rhetoric of hard-line Iranian religious officials. But since the comments came not from one of the country’s ayatollahs but from its president, and came soon after Israel garnered international plaudits for its Gaza Strip withdrawal, and as international scrutiny on Iran’s nuclear program intensifies — they drew a lot of attention. Israel found its objections to the radical rhetoric echoed worldwide — from the United States to Europe to the United Nations. Even Russia, which is helping Iran build its Bushehr nuclear reactor and has long been hesitant to criticize its trading partner in the Persian Gulf, joined in. “What I saw on television is unacceptable. We will bring this to the attention of the Iranians,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who only last month in his landmark United Nations address bemoaned the fact that “no one opens their mouth” when such threats are made against his country, launched a campaign to have Iran expelled from the forum. “A country that calls for the destruction of another people cannot be a member of the United Nations,” Sharon said. Jerusalem officials admitted that a U.N ouster of Iran was unlikely, given that it would require a Security Council recommendation and two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly — traditionally a bastion of anti-Israel sentiment. “I don’t know if it has any chance of success,” Vice Premier Shimon Peres said of the campaign. “But it is something we must say. I don´t think it is a matter of what one thinks is worthwhile or not. This is intolerable.” Last Friday, the U.N. Security Council did rebuke Iran for Ahmadinejad’s comments. For its part, Iran over the weekend accused the West of using its president’s comments about the destruction of Israel in order to intensify pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. At the same time, Iran’s Foreign Ministry released a statement over the weekend, saying that the government’s official stance “is that the occupation of Palestine should end, refugees should return and a democratic state should be formed with Jerusalem as its capital.” According to some Jerusalem officials, the international community responded so strongly to Israel’s diplomatic offensive in a bid to avert an Israeli military offensive. Sharon, like President Bush, has long hinted that force could be a last resort for preventing Iran from getting the bomb. Ahmadinejad’s speech at the “World Without Zionism” rally — where the title was posted in English, not Farsi, for international consumption — coupled with his lack of cooperation with European-led efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, have made this specter of confrontation loom ever larger. “Such a country, with nuclear arms, is a danger, not just to Israel and the Middle East, but also to Europe,” Sharon said. Similar comments came from the White House. Still, no one expects military escalation before the exhaustion of U.S.-led efforts to bring Iran before the Security Council and impose sanctions unless it abandons its quest for weapons of mass destruction. Ahmadinejad has made this possibility more likely. “I cannot fail to recognize that those who favor transferring the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council now have an additional argument,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.
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