- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israel’s defense minister hinted strongly over the weekend that his country would act unilaterally if necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Shaul Mofaz, who hails from the same hometown as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also warned the Iranian leader that his policies risked bringing destruction to his own people.

“I want to address President Ahmadinejad, who is from the city where I was born,” said Mr. Mofaz at the opening session Saturday of the Herzliya Conference, an annual strategic seminar.

“I address you as someone who leads his country with an ideology of hate, terror and anti-Semitism. I suggest you look at history and see what happened to others who tried to wipe out the Jewish people. In the end, they brought destruction on their own people.”

Mr. Mofaz said Israel was relying “at present” on international efforts to forestall Iran’s nuclear efforts, but suggested that it would take the matter into its own hands if necessary.

“Israel is not prepared to accept the nuclear arming of Iran and it must prepare to defend itself, with all that that implies,” he said.

The warning was the sharpest yet by an Israeli leader. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remains in a coma after a stroke three weeks ago, had been circumspect on the subject, saying the issue was not one on which Israel was taking the lead.

Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, head of the Israeli armed forces, was cautious when asked to respond to Mr. Mofaz’ remarks.

“I am not going to deal with the solutions to the Iranian nuclear problem,” he said. “Israel is not helpless — that it is enough of an answer.”

Iran’s state-controlled news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi as dismissing the Israeli remarks as part of “a psychological war” and as “child’s play.”

Both Mr. Mofaz and Mr. Ahmadinejad hail from the city of Garmsar, southeast of Tehran, which Mr. Mofaz left at age 9 with his family in 1957 to emigrate to Israel. Mr. Ahmadinejad was born there in 1956, so the pair apparently resided in proximity for a year.

Mr. Mofaz’s mention of his Iranian roots might have been intended to counter Mr. Ahmadinejad’s call for Israelis to be “sent back” to Europe. Half of Israeli Jews hail from the Muslim world, including Iran.

In addition to Mr. Mofaz, Israeli President Moshe Katsav was born in Iran, as was a former Air Force commander, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu. Gen. Halutz, the present chief of staff, has partial Iranian roots as well.

Mr. Mofaz’s remarks were sharply criticized by some Israelis, including a former Likud Defense Minister Moshe Arens.

“This issue is too sensitive for public threats,” he said.

The Likud chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuval Steinitz, accused Mr. Mofaz of electioneering.

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