JERUSALEM // While the hero's welcome that greeted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Beirut yesterday has put many Israelis on edge, Palestinians see the visit as an unwanted distraction from faltering Middle East peace talks.
The Iranian president's denunciations of Israel, said Yaccov Roi, is mostly sabre-rattling by the Islamic republic and Israel's other arch-nemesis, the Lebanese Shiite Islamist movement Hizbollah.
"They want to show that they're strong," the 77-year-old Israeli said as he strolled beside the King David Hotel in downtown Jerusalem yesterday. Still, his remarks cannot all be dismissed as bluster, he said. "There's a steady level of concern, you know. Everyone here is, how do you say, keeping their hand on the pulse of things." Arye Eldad, a member of Israel's parliament, took Mr Roi's concerns one step further by calling on the Israeli military to kill Mr Ahmadinejad if he visited the border with Lebanon.
The Iranian leader is scheduled to visit villages in southern Lebanon that were destroyed by Israel during its war with Hizbollah in 2006. While there, he was reported to have been planning to lob stones over the border into Israel, an assertion that Iran's foreign ministry has since denied. "If even for one moment, Ahmadinejad is in the [military's] sights on the day that he comes to throw stones at us, he cannot be allowed to return home alive," the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper, quoted Mr Eldad as saying yesterday.
There are reports that Israel has been making behind-the-scenes diplomatic and military preparations for the visit. Aside from Mr Eldad's remarks, though, Israeli leaders have issued little more than guarded barbs at the man who has repeatedly called for the destruction of their country. Yigal Palmor, a spokesperson for Israel's foreign ministry, said yesterday that it was "clear that he is the bearer of a violent message. He comes to a highly volatile region with the intention to play with fire."
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement: "Iran's domination of Lebanon, through its proxy Hizbollah, has prevented Lebanon from being a partner in peace and turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and a hub of regional terror and instability." If Israelis were unnerved, some Palestinian residents of Jerusalem's Old City saw the Iranian leader's Lebanon visit as a mere sideshow to what they called the real problem: finding a solution to their intractable conflict with Israel. Israel-Palestinian negotiations that recently restarted are in danger of collapsing after stalling over the issue of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"Ahmadinejad is using the Palestinian people as a way to increase his own influence in the region, because, you know, the Americans are very weak right now," said Farraj Wazaz, 48, a Palestinian who spent 12 years in an Israel jail and now works in a store located in Via Dolorosa, the popular street. "The problem with all this is, he doesn't really care about the Palestinian cause," Mr Wazaz said.
Not far from his store, several men, watching Hizbollah's television channel, Al Manar, unenthusiastically watched Mr Ahmadinejad hold a news conference with Michel Suleiman, Lebanon's president. "To be honest, I don't care, I really don't care," said Amin Shoreim, 40, a Palestinian owner of a store that sells honey in the Old City. "The benefit of this visit is going to whom? I really don't know. I really don't care."
While walking to pray in the nearby Al Yaqoubi mosque, a Palestinian man paused momentarily, turned his head to the sky as he thought, and said: "What does it matter? He is what Saddam Hussein was to America, and America's only going to do to him what it did to Saddam. "Really, what does it all matter?"