He didn’t mention Iran by name, but the target of Ariel Sharon’s warning was as clear as his message: The world is facing a serious threat. “Even today, there are those who sit here as representatives of a country whose leadership calls to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and no one speaks out,” the Israeli prime minster told delegates to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. “The attempts of that country to arm itself with nuclear weapons must disturb the sleep of anyone who desires peace and stability in the Middle East and the entire world.”
A former Iranian president, who still wields significant political power in the Islamic Republic, has spoken publicly of using nuclear weapons to annihilate the Jewish state — even if Iran has to suffer millions of casualties of its own.
Sharon was the 35th speaker on the second day of the World Summit that has brought some 170 world leaders to the shores of New York City’s East River. His comments were part of a concerted Israeli effort to focus world attention on Iran’s nuclear aspirations during this visit to the United States.
Sharon has raised the issue repeatedly this week in meetings with world leaders, a Sharon spokesman told JTA. He discussed Iran with President Bush; Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; and representatives of the European Union “Troika” of Britain, France and Germany that negotiates with Iran on its nuclear aims
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also has expressed Israel’s concern about Iran in multiple meetings with European leaders, from the foreign minister of the Netherlands to the E.U.’s high representative, Javier Solana.
Iran’s nuclear aspirations long have worried Jerusalem, and Israel is hoping to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, to refer Iran to the Security Council for sanctions when the IAEA board meets Monday in Vienna.
“It’s a critical time to put the marker down that something has to be done,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The U.N. “can’t keep tolerating a country that calls for the destruction of a member state.”
Israel also complains of Iranian support for terrorism, including funding Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia — a complaint Sharon lodged again Thursday.
“The combination of murky fundamentalism and support of terrorist organizations creates a serious threat that every member nation in the U.N. must stand against,” he told the General Assembly audience, which included Shalom, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman.
In his meeting with Blair on Thursday, Sharon said Iran was reaching the “point of no return” when it will be capable of producing nuclear materials. From there, Iran could assemble a bomb.
“It’s an issue that is not only of concern to Israel,” Sharon spokesman Ra’anan Gissin told JTA. “It’s a major concern of the U.S. The Iranian issue is very much on everyone’s minds.”
Blair pledged that Great Britain would wield its influence in the European Union to ensure that Iran is not let off the hook, Gissin said.
Sharon further said in his address that Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip had opened a “window of opportunity for advancing toward peace,” and that achieving peace was his “primary mission for the coming years.”
“Israeli society is undergoing a difficult crisis as a result of the disengagement, and now needs to heal the rifts,” Sharon said. “Now it is the Palestinians’ turn to prove their desire for peace.”
“I call on the Palestinian leadership to show determination and leadership and to eliminate terror, violence and the culture of hatred from our relations,” he added.
Still, much of Sharon’s address seemed aimed at shoring up support among his constituency back home.
Sharon faces a challenge for the Likud Party leadership from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a potential split in the party over the Gaza withdrawal. His remarks — delivered in Hebrew and broadcast live Thursday night in Israel — stressed the Jewish people’s historical attachment to the Land of Israel and the wrenching nature of the Gaza pullout.
“The Land of Israel is precious to me, precious to us, the Jewish people, more than anything,” he said. “Relinquishing any part of our forefathers’ legacy is heartbreaking, as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea.”
Emphasizing his personal connection to the land, Sharon said he was born in Israel to pioneer parents who had no desire to dispossess anyone.
“If the circumstances had not demanded it I would not have become a soldier, but rather a farmer and agriculturalist,” he said. “My first love was, and remains, manual labor: sowing and harvesting, the pastures, the flock and the cattle.”
Sharon has spoken often about the pain of uprooting Jewish communities and his deep connection with the Land of Israel. Still, Gissin said, Sharon’s Likud base “definitely was part of the target audience.”
“It was also important for the rest of the world to know that the man they loved to hate for so many years — who he really is, what are his roots,” Gissin said. “He is a warrior by necessity, a farmer by choice.”
Some on the right wing felt Sharon’s comments missed the mark.
“Who would have believed that 12 years afer Oslo and after Israel has give up half the West Bank, all of Gaza, and has given billions of dollars to the P.A., that an Israeli prime minister would still have to come to the U.N. to plead yet again for an end to terror and incitement?” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. “It’s high time for both Israel and the U.S. to say there will be no more money, no negotiations and a continuous and severe response to the P.A. if terror continues.”
Still, if he hopes to strengthen support among his base, Sharon will be flying home with a valuable prize: strong backing from Bush.
Bush blasted the U.N. Human Rights Commission in his keynote speech to the summit Wednesday. The commission — which has included among its members notorious human-rights violators, including Libya, Sudan, Syria and Cuba — singles out Israel above all other nations for condemnation.
Bush met with Sharon immediately after his keynote speech and praised the Israeli warmly, according to reports.
“All over the world, people want strong leaders. That’s how I won the last elections, despite the media’s belief that I would lose. And I’m sure that you will also win,” Bush told Sharon at their meeting, according to Ha’aretz. “I’m not interfering, but I’m sure that if Gaza is quiet, it will help you.”
The praise continued later that day.
“I admire Prime Minister Sharon,” Bush said Wednesday night at a dinner marking 350 years of Jewish life in America, hosted by Celebrate 350: Jewish Life in America and the Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History.
“He’s a man of courage; he’s a man of peace. Once again, I expressed this nation’s commitment to defending the security and well-being of Israel. I also assured him that I will not waver when it comes to spreading freedom around the world. I understand this, that freedom is not America’s gift to the world; freedom is Almighty God’s gift to each man and woman and child in this world,” Bush said.
Bush also condemned the Palestinian desecration of synagogues in evacuated Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.
“Religious freedom is more than the freedom to practice one’s faith; it is also the obligation to respect the faith of others,” Bush said. “So to stand for religious freedom, we must expose and confront the ancient hatred of anti-Semitism, wherever it is found.”
JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.