Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

U.S. evasion on Iran rhetoric reminiscent of Arafat's 'jihad' speech

The Obama administration’s weak response to Iran’s latest belligerent rhetoric is reminiscent of how the U.S. responded to one of Yasser Arafat’s most infamous speeches—and illustrates one of the main dangers of the Iran nuclear agreement.

Just four days after the nuclear deal was signed in Vienna, with the ink on the agreement barely dry, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denounced America’s “arrogance” and vowed that despite the agreement, Iran will continue “supporting our friends in Palestine, Lebanon” and elsewhere. In other words, it will continue giving weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah.

According to Reuters, excited members of the audience periodically shouted “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel” during Khamenei’s speech. Khamenei didn’t seem to mind. No surprise there. Just days earlier, his government had sponsored rallies at which millions of Iranians nationwide chanted those same hate slogans.

Obama administration officials had nothing to say about Khamenei’s hostile and threatening rhetoric. They hoped nobody would notice.  And they almost got away with it, thanks to the indifference of the major news media. But three days later, Secretary of State John Kerry was interviewed on the Saudi television station Al-Arabiya, and the interviewer raised the issue.

Secretary Kerry was clearly uncomfortable about having to address the topic. Squirming in his seat and stumbling in his words, Kerry finally acknowledged that “if it [Khamanei’s rhetoric] is the policy [of Iran], it’s very disturbing.”

Very disturbing? It goes directly to the heart of the deal that Kerry and Obama just signed. This is an agreement based on the claim that Iran has become “moderate” and “pragmatic” and now wants to coexist peacefully with the United States. Everything Khamenei said contradicted Obama’s image of Tehran. That’s not just “very disturbing.” It should be considered a game-changer.

But the Obama administration is playing a different game, in which the reality of Arab or Muslim belligerence is never a deal-breaker. It’s painfully reminiscent of how the Clinton administration responded to Yasser Arafat’s infamous “jihad” speech.

Remember that? It was the spring of 1994, just months after the signing of the Israel-PLO Oslo Accords. The Clinton administration was devoutly committed to the accords, even to the point of downplaying the mounting evidence of Palestinian violations.

Arafat was visiting South Africa, and delivered a speech at the Mayfair Mosque in Johannesburg on May 11. It was probably a routine stump speech. But in those days, the Internet was new, monitoring groups like Palestinian Media Watch didn’t yet exist, so very little information about Arafat’s Arabic language speeches ever reached the American public.

But word of this speech leaked out. Israeli media reported that Arafat had assured his Muslim listeners that the Oslo Accords are “the first step and not more than that,” and he vowed, “The Jihad will continue!” He urged his audience, “You have to come, and to fight, and to start the Jihad to liberate Jerusalem!”

The Clinton administration did its best to play down the news. Secretary of State Warren Christopher grudgingly said he would seek a “clarification” from Arafat. U.S. officials couldn’t find the translation. Some of them told reporters that “jihad” did not always mean violence. Before long, it was out of the news.

It would take eight years for the world to wake up. In 2002, Israel intercepted the Karine A, a Palestinian Authority ship with several tons of weapons for Arafat’s “jihad.” But think how many lives would have been saved—how many terrorist attacks between 1994 and 2002 would have been preempted—if Washington had taken Arafat’s 1994 speech seriously.

Recognizing the enemy’s true character, whether it’s the Palestinian Authority or Iran, may not serve some political agendas in the short run, but it will save a lot of lives in the long run.

Benyamin Korn, the former executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and the Miami Jewish Tribune, is chairman of the Philadelphia Religious Zionists.


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