PRESIDENT Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has done it again. Two months ago,he sparked off an international scandal when he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map".
Now, he has gone even further by suggesting that Holocaust (in which six million Jews were murdered during World War II) may have never taken place, and that Israel should have been created in Europe.
American politicians have reacted with fury.
And Germany (where denial of the Holocaust is a crime) immediately summoned the Iranian ambassador for some explanations.
And yet, however bizarre Mr Ahmadinejad’s comments may sound, they serve clear political purposes. The Iranian leader positively wants to be regarded as the world’s "enfant terrible".
The view that Jews deliberately exaggerated the numbers killed in the Holocaust in order to get Western supoort for the creation of Israel is shared by quite a few ordinary Arabs.
So is the idea that, since the Europeans were responsible for murdering Jews, they should have created Israel on their continent, rather than carving up a piece of the Middle East as a "compensation".
Historically, this remains pure nonsense.
Zionism, the movement which led to the creation of a Jewish state, based its claim on the Bible, and identified Israel as the only home.
It began in the 19th century, and many Jews had already arrived in Palestine well before the Holocaust.
True, large numbers of Jews migrated from Europe after World War II. But just as many came from neighbouring Arab countries, where no Holocaust took place.
And finally, the West did not "create" Israel. Britain, the colonial power, opposed Israel’s establishment and the Americans were initially undecided about the need for the Jewish state,
But the myth is potent in the Middle East because it provides a convenient excuse for the Arab failure to prevent Israel’s birth and its continued existence: it is all, supposedly, because of a Western "plot".
By publicly repeating such old notions now, President Ahmadinejad is making a direct bid for the support of ordinary Arabs throughout the Middle East.
For the first time in decades, a regional leader has voiced what "people in the street" have thought all along.
The row also serves Mr Ahmadinejad’s dosmetic political purposes. Despite the fact that he was popularly elected, the President does not really have much power.
The country’s supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, exercises ultimate control, and can dismiss him at will.
Also, the Iranian parliament is now locked in an open dispute with Mr Ahmadinejad; it has rejected his choice of a new oil minister — a key post in the country — at least four times.
Increasingly concerned, Presindent Ahmadinejad has concluded that making outrageous public statements provides him with an excellent defence against enemies at home.
The more he is criticised by Western governments, the more difficult it will be for Ayatollah Khamenei to dismiss him; nobody in Iran wants to be seen as reacting to Western criticism.
However, Mr Ahmadinejad’s tactic — of making shocking statements and behaving in an outlandish way in order to increase his stature — is not exactly original.
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez frequently recycles old myths about American plots and uniquely for a head of state, recently took part in street protests while visiting a foreign country. A good case can be made that, once such games become transparent, they should not matter.
President Ahmadinejad is probably a passing figure; he will ultimately be discarded by the Iranians themselves. Nevertheless, his ill-judged remarks do damage the cause of Muslims everywhere.
His outburst came at the end of a summit organised by Saudi Arabia. Just hours before the participants issued the Mecca Declaration, which promises to eliminate terrorism and extremist thought, Mr Ahmadinejad started his spectacle.
Thus, with a single stroke, he wiped off all the good publicity from the summit.
As one prominent Saudi commentator said, barely controlling his anger: "The Iranian President seems to have lost his direction."
~ by Jonathan Eyal in London, The Straits Time, December 12, 2005