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Israel's war of words with Iran

Posted: February 22, 2012 - 12:02am

Thirty years ago, when I was promoted to a new position in the Israeli Defense Forces, I sent all my friends a note promising to do this and that, and more. Most of them responded with “Good luck” or something of the sort, except for one, Uri Talmor, who wrote words that I’ll never forget: “Speak in cents, act in dollars.”

These words seem to be most relevant today, when Israeli officials are saturating the public discourse with declarations about Iran. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in a lecture he gave in Herzliya recently, spoke at length about the need to act now. “Whoever argues that it’s better to act later,” he said, “might find out that it’s too late.” Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a chance to explain why we shouldn’t act militarily, while at the same time NBC, obviously tipped by anonymous Israeli sources, laid out in great detail a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to restrain his talkative ministers, he himself contributed to this unhealthy rhetoric, by equating the present situation to Munich 1938, implying that Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was today’s Hitler, and that we shouldn’t repeat the mistake of not acting in time to curb a dictator’s evil schemes. The Iranians responded to what they perceived as Israeli threats by suggesting a pre-emptive strike, and so the exchange of fighting words continues, threatening at any moment to shift from words to fighting.

I served as a spokesman under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and things were different then. Maybe because Rabin himself had learned the hard way how words could inflame an already loaded situation between Israel and its enemies.

It was Hebrew New Year’s Eve in 1966 when Rabin, then chief of staff of the IDF, gave the traditional interview to the Army magazine, Bamachane. Things had been rough between Israel and Syria for some years, over the use of water, border skirmishes and Syrian support of Palestinian terrorism. Rabin, however, added fuel to the flames. “The situation between Israel and Syria is different (from that between Israel and Egypt and Jordan),” he said, “and requires a different mode of action ... directed against the perpetrators and against the regime that supports them.”

Upon hearing that his chief of staff had openly threatened to do nothing short of toppling the Syrian regime, then-Prime Minister Levy Eshkol, who had been desperately trying to solve the conflict in diplomatic channels, became so furious that he considered firing him. Then the Six-Day War broke out, Rabin became its victorious hero and the incident was forgotten. Not by Rabin, though.

Years later, in January 1995, the Islamic Jihad carried out a most vicious attack in Beit Lydd, when a Palestinian suicide bomber, dressed in army uniform, blew himself up in the midst of IDF soldiers waiting for their transportation. When the rescue forces rushed to the area, another suicide bomber blew himself up, adding to the carnage. Rabin, then prime minister in his second term, came to inspect the gruesome scene, not knowing that a third suicide bomber, who had been waiting specifically for him, failed to carry out his deadly mission.

A few days later, from his safe haven in Damascus, Fathi Shikaki, founder of the Islamic Jihad, gave an interview to Lara Marlow, the correspondent of Time magazine. Beaming and smiling, he bragged about his recent accomplishment. I didn’t know at the time whether or not his days were numbered, but I remembered that Golda Meir, after the massacre of the Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics in 1972, ordered the Mossad to settle accounts with Hassan Salameh, the man who had masterminded the crime, and with his aides.

Lo and behold, on October 26, 1995, two motorcyclists tracked Shikaki, who was on his way to Libya, near a hotel in Malta, and killed him. Foreign sources would describe how the two, presumably Mossad agents, were smuggled out of the island by Israeli naval commandos. I saw Rabin the following day, and he was in an unusually good mood.

However, he gave us a strict order not to say a word to the press. Since talking to the press was my only job, I found myself in the awkward situation of having to keep my mouth shut while the journalists gave me the “c’mon, everybody knows you guys did it.” Finally, giving in to pressure, I said to one of the British television channels that “I don’t know who killed Shikaki, but surely the world is now a safer place without him.”

For a while I enjoyed being so smart until I found out the following day that Rabin was furious. I stayed away from his office, to avoid his wrath. Up till this moment, I don’t know if he ever forgave me. He was assassinated just a few days later.

All these memories evoke that old phrase of Uri Talmor, so lucid in the fog of words which only worsen a tense situation: “Speak in cents, act in dollars.” He’s dead now, so I don’t know where he borrowed this phrase. But another phrase, no less apt to today’s circumstances, can be easily found in Isaiah 30:15: “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.”

• Dromi writes about Israeli affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send him email at dromi@mishkenot.org.il.

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