Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday offered humanitarian assistance to the victims of the devastating earthquake that has killed hundreds in Iran and Iraq, but was immediately rebuffed.
Netanyahu told a gathering of North American Jewish leaders that Israel had offered the aid via the Red Cross, following Sunday’s magnitude 7.3 quake that killed at least 530 people in Iran and several people in Iraq, and injured thousands across the region.
“I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq from this week’s earthquake. And I saw these heartbreaking images of men and women and children buried under the rubble. So I am proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster,” Netanyahu told the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly in Los Angeles, via videoconference.
“I’ve said many times that we have no quarrel with the people of Iran,” he added. “Our quarrel is only with the tyrannical regime that holds them hostage and threatens our destruction. But our humanity is greater than their hatred. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations and this is what I am proud of. And all of you can be proud of Israel’s morals, and Israel’s might.”
An official in Netanyahu’s office said, however, the offer was immediately rejected.
“This shows the true face of the Iranian regime,” the official said.
On Monday, various Israeli officials said they were unaware of any efforts to offer aid to the two countries.
“The Home Front Command has not organized a delegation [for Iran and Iraq],” an army spokesperson said.
In 2003, Tehran rebuffed an Israeli offer of assistance after a quake in the southeastern Iranian city of Bam killed more than 26,000 people. Nine years later, when two quakes hit the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, killing more than 300 people and injuring 3,000, Israel did not offer assistance, citing the rejected offer.
“We offered Iran assistance after earthquakes in the past, but they refused. So this time, we didn’t even bother to ask if they’re interested,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman told The Times of Israel at the time. “Their refusal was pretty impolite, but we’re not making a big fuss about it.”
Netanyahu’s announcement of offered aid drew quick praise from Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party.
“Netanyahu did well to offer assistance for those affected by the earthquake in Iran and Iraq. The Jewish people are among the leaders in human morality and compassion,” he said in a tweet.
Speaking at the closing session of the conference (at about 1:17:40 in the video above), Netanyahu also addressed his cabinet’s controversial freezing of a deal to upgrade a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall.
“Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so,” he said, insisting that it was “vitally important” to him personally as he deeply cares about the issue and is committed to make Jews of all denominations feel welcome.
On Monday, the JFNA’s board of trustees, representing Jewish communal philanthropies across the United States and Canada, passed a resolution calling on Israel to reverse its “divisive and damaging” steps to freeze the agreement on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and its support of a bill that would grant a monopoly to Orthodox authorities in Israel over conversions to Judaism.
In January 2016, the Israeli government agreed to make significant changes to existing platform, including creating a common entrance for all three prayer areas — the Orthodox men’s and women’s section and the so-called “Ezrat Yisrael” plaza, where men and women can worship together.
In June, after some ultra-Orthodox websites started to criticize the agreement, the cabinet voted to suspend part of it, notably including the plan to build a common entrance, which was seen as a form of recognizing non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and the provision for shared oversight of the pluralistic prayer pavilion, including by representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
“What the government froze in June were only most ideologically charged elements of the Western Wall plan. They were holding up the practical elements of the plan hostage,” Netanyahu said.
The pluralistic prayer platform has existed for nearly 20 years and the January 2016 deal merely promised to “improve” it. “We’re moving forward with construction to doing just that,” he said.
The balance between religion and state has been tense since the state’s founding, the prime minister went on, saying he is emulating all his predecessors in this respect.
“Religious status quo issues have always been resolved as the result of evolution and not revolution. So despite the disagreements, despite, I have to say, a lot of distortions, and despite the at times disparaging remarks about me and my government, I remain committed to moving forward.”
He added: I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer at the Kotel.”