JERUSALEM — Once again, Israel finds itself on the sidelines of a public controversy in which it is both central and tangential.
What exactly did the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, say about the Holocaust in an interview with CNN?
And what is Iran's intention in requesting an accelerated schedule for negotiations on its nuclear program, after what the United States, Israel and Western powers have called years of dissembling?
But first, consider this: there is no Farsi word for "Holocaust."
For all of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's histrionic obsession with the subject, the word he used to describe what he called "a myth" was borrowed from the language of the Great Satan: English.
"You just say the word 'Holocaust,' only with a Farsi intonation," says Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
The irony of the linguistic deficit seems lost in the row about what, in fact, was meant when in the now infamous interview Rouhani said the “crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews” was “reprehensible and condemnable.”
The semi-official Iranian news agency Fars, with ties to the hard-line Revolutionary Guard, an elite military unit formed to protect the regime, immediately accused CNN of fabricating parts of the interview and pointed out that Rouhani had not in fact uttered the word "Holocaust."
All Israeli government offices were closed on Wednesday and Thursday in observance of the Sukkot holiday, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an unreceptive response to Rouhani's speech at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, made before the interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour went on the air.
In a late-night statement released by his spokesman, Netanyahu characterized the speech as "cynical" and "full of hypocrisy."
"Rouhani spoke of human rights even as Iranian forces are participating in the large-scale slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria," he said.
Alluding to Iran's increasing investment in conventional weaponry, in addition to concealed nuclear facilities, Netanyahu added that Rouhani "spoke of a nuclear program for civilian purposes even as an [International Atomic Energy Agency] report determines that the program has military dimensions, and when any rational person understands that Iran, one of the most oil-rich nations, is not investing capital in ballistic missiles and underground nuclear facilities in order to produce electricity."
The tetchy debate over the Iranian leader's possible acknowledgement — or not — of the Holocaust may appear semantic, but it is an indication of the delicacy of any subject touching on Jews, or Israel, within Iran's increasingly fragile political arena.
"The argument over his words is important," says Eldad J. Pardo, a Hebrew University expert on Iran and the Middle East. "The principle of Holocaust denial is holy for Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. And another principle is what is called Velayat-e Saqih — the rule of the jurist, meaning, the single-man rule of Khamenei. He has determined that there was no Holocaust and that all the world's problems are caused by Zionists and that Israel must disappear from the face of the earth."
Challenging the accepted credo, Pardo says, is no light matter.
After "eight crazy years of Ahmadinejad," Vatanka says, agreeing, it is imperative to "consider whatever Rouhani said or did not say in the context of Iran's domestic political landscape," not the least of which is the widespread acknowledgment, within Iran, that Ahmadinejad caused significant damage to his nation.
"For now, Rouhani benefits from two things," Vatanka says. The first, simply not being the uniquely polarizing figure of Ahmadinejad. The second, that "clear signals" emanating from Tehran indicate that the aging Supreme Leader, Iran's de facto man in charge, is willing to allow Rouhani significant leeway in initiating a new phase of negotiations with the US and the West.
Vatanka underscores that Iran-US relations are not a matter that will be resolved "in a photo op or in a symbolic handshake."
The extent of Israeli jitteriness in the shifting landscape created by what is being called Rouhani's "charm offensive" in the US was better measured by Israeli reactions to President Barack Obama's UN speech, a few hours before Rouhani's. It was listened to with painstaking attention in Jerusalem.
Israeli coverage, which is usually unremittingly skeptical about any statement emitted by Iranian media outlets, gave top billing to the Iranian media's celebratory interpretation of Obama's address, which, like Rouhani's, was more conciliatory than last year's.
One nervous radio news show host groused that "it sounds like Obama's just offering the Iranians an open invitation to meet."
Then on Thursday, in a speech at a special UN conference on disarmament, Rouhani said that “no nation should possess nuclear weapons,” and called on Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as Iran has, in order to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons.
In a statement, Israel's minister of intelligence and international affairs, Yuval Steinitz, responded: "Iran's new president is playing an old and familiar game by trying to deflect attention from Iran's nuclear weapons program. The problem of the NPT in the Middle East is not with those countries which have not signed the NPT, but countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria which have signed the treaty and brazenly violated it."
Rouhani finds himself walking a difficult line, Pardo says. Iran is trying to repair its ties to the West, and especially to the US, while struggling to maintain its own "holy of holies."
A new religion was established in 1979, with the Islamic revolution, Pardo claims. "It's that of Khamenism. It has a strong Shiite foundation, but with great influences from other lines of thought: Americano-French republicanism, fascism, communism, and even Israel and Zionism. A new ideology was developed with a pope at its head, and that pope is Khamenei."
A fundamental tenet of this state-religion is that "Israel must vanish from the map and that international Zionism controls the world," Pardo says.
"The Iranians are in a moment of political acrobatics right now: they want an agreement with US, but they can't come to an agreement without damaging the holiness of Khamenism, who styles himself the leader of all Muslims and of the downtrodden of the world. It’s a real ideological struggle."