Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been a convenient bogeyman for Israel. So the early claim of his reelection as Iran’s president brought quiet sighs of relief to many Israeli leaders, who figured it would be easier to rally Western pressure against Iran as long as the Holocaust-denying hard-liner remained in power.
Now, after more than a week of massive protests by defiant Iranians alleging electoral fraud, sentiment in Israel is shifting. Its leaders have joined the Israeli public in openly applauding the demonstrators and asking aloud whether the theocratic regime feared by the Jewish state as a threat to its existence might be crumbling.
“It is a regime whose real nature has been unmasked, and it’s been unmasked by incredible acts of courage by Iran’s citizens,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They go into the streets and face bullets. . . . Something very deep, very fundamental is going on. There’s an expression of a deep desire amid the people of Iran for freedom.”
Speaking to a gathering of world Jewish leaders, Israeli President Shimon Peres suggested that the street protests pose a threat to Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and to the regime.
“I don’t know what will disappear first -- their enriched uranium or their poor government,” he declared. “Hopefully, the poor government will disappear.”
Israeli officials caution that no one can be certain how the largest outpouring of public anger in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution will play out. They say the turmoil could make it harder, at least in the short run, for the Obama administration to use diplomacy to curb Iran’s nuclear program and its support for Islamic militants who attack Israel.
Netanyahu said Sunday that the U.S. and Israel should “leave all options on the table,” alluding to a possible military strike on Iran.
Before Iran’s June 12 election, many Israeli officials and analysts saw little difference between Ahmadinejad, who once said Israel would in time be “wiped off the map,” and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his chief rival. They viewed the two men as essentially like-minded veterans of the clerical regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
If anything, Israeli officials have worried more about Mousavi. Because he is generally perceived as more moderate, they thought he might be able to persuade Western leaders to accept Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only -- while, in their opinion, moving quietly to build a bomb.
Meir Dagan, chief of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, voiced that concern Tuesday in briefing parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Then, in a prediction that proved wrong, he told the panel that the protests in Iran on behalf of Mousavi’s candidacy would fizzle in a few days.
Captivated by the ensuing scenes of bloody clashes between protesters and Iranian security forces, many Israelis have come to believe that large segments of the Iranian population deplore the country’s isolation from the West and its enmity with the Jewish state and might prove powerful enough to challenge the regime’s fundamental policies.
“Suddenly, there appears to be an Iranian people. Not just nuclear technology, extremist ayatollahs, the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad, and an axis of evil,” Zvi Barel wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Via images transmitted by television, Israel is now gaining a more intimate, accurate familiarity with the Iranian public. . . . There is the Iran that once screamed ‘Death to America and to Israel’ and there is the Iran that now screams ‘Down with the dictator!’ ”
The front page of Yediot Aharonot, a mass-circulation daily in Israel, was dominated Sunday by an image taken from the YouTube clip of a young woman identified as the victim of a shooting by the security forces on a Tehran street. Another popular newspaper, Maariv, featured an interview with an Israeli technology expert working with a U.S.-based project to provide “safe proxy” servers that enable Iranian bloggers to bypass the government’s Internet censors.
Israel is home to tens of thousands of Iranian-born Jews and their descendants. A wider Israeli audience is following events in Iran in mainstream media and on news forums that string together videos, slide shows and blogs transmitted by YouTube and Twitter. Each of these reports spurs dozens, sometimes hundreds, of talkbacks.
“Israelis are asking, ‘Is there any way to help these people?’ as if all the tension between Israel and Iran didn’t exist,” said Eldad Pardo, an Iran expert at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
Word is spreading in cyberspace of a demonstration planned for Tuesday in Holon, near Tel Aviv, to show solidarity with the Iranian protesters.
“You can do more with Twitter than you can with the ayatollah,” President Peres quipped in his speech.
Until Sunday, Israeli officials had been reluctant to support the protesters openly because they feared it could cause more harm than good. The new outspokenness appeared to reflect a belief that reaching out to moderate forces in Iran would be in Israel’s long-term interest.
“The Iranian people are sympathetic toward Israel,” said Kamal Pinhasi, an Iranian Jewish immigrant who is organizing Tuesday’s demonstration. “Thirty years of the regime’s brainwashing has damaged this to an extent, but the overall sympathy is there.”
Ben Caspit, a columnist for Maariv, wrote that Israelis are buoyed by a faint hope that a “new Iran” will emerge from the street protests, forswear the bomb and stop arming the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
“For now, these are distant dreams based on dim sensations and a slight smell of change,” he wrote. “And yet, one can dream.”
Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.