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Netanyahu's Power Play Creates New Opportunities

By: Jack Rosen

Chairman, American Council for World Jewry; Chairman, American Jewish Congress

 

In hindsight, the agreement that brought the largest opposition party in Israel into Prime Minister Netanyahu's government should have been relatively easy to predict. He now governs with a huge majority of 94 out of 120 members of the Knesset on his side, confirming that he is Israel's strongest leader at least since the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Netanyahu has made it clear to friend and foe alike that even as pervasive political and economic instability puts every incumbent at risk throughout the west, and upheavals in the middle east upend old regimes, he isn't going anywhere. Backing for his new government extends far beyond his own base, and that of the small parties that typically hold hostage Israel's prime ministers to narrow agendas. For the foreseeable future, Netanyahu is unchallenged.

In Israel, the excitement across the broad center of the population stems in large part from the promise that key domestic issues that have festered for years may be resolvable. These have to do with budget priorities, finding alternative avenues for the orthodox community to fulfill military service, and achieving consensus on the best way to remedy the election law for Prime Minister.

But the larger strategic questions -- derailing Iran's nuclear weapons program and achieving peace with the Palestinians -- understandably have received all the attention from the international community. And it's through this prism that the move to bring into the fold the centrist Kadima party reveals Netanyahu's underlying strength all along.

Most of the world lives under the misconception that Israel is determined to use military force to stop Iran's drive to acquire nukes. For a country that has not known a day of peace in its 64 year existence, with virtually no family untouched by the tragedy of war, Israelis are anything but cavalier about having to use force. On the other hand, they have learned through the years that their security depends on their own resolve and they remain steadfast in making whatever sacrifices are required.

In the case of Iran, the Israeli political establishment, accurately representing the large majority of the population, is telling the world that a unity government with Netanyahu in the lead is once again ready to do what is needed to protect the nation.

This provides President Obama a useful stick in his diplomatic toolkit. His hope -- that a united international community supporting strong sanctions can persuade Tehran to forego its nuclear weapons program -- relies on Iran coming to believe further intransigence has dire consequences. The threat of force in this instance is an indispensable diplomatic weapon to address what the president has identified as a threat to U.S. national security.

It's a stunning irony to note that much of the Sunni Arab world, no less concerned than Israel about the repercussions of a nuclear Iran, is pleased to see Netanyahu consolidate and expand his power, so long as President Obama skillfully deploys the full arsenal in his tool kit.

If all this doesn't concentrate the minds of Iran's leaders, nothing will.

With respect to the peace process with the Palestinians, pressure for action may flow in the other direction, as Netanyahu's broad coalition is well suited to make serious proposals and enter into a genuine give and take without fear of political retribution from some of Israel's rightist, ideological parties. Netanyahu's position in favor of the two-state solution now has significant support both in and out of government.

But just when Israel may be ready, especially if President Obama succeeds in persuading Iran to back down, the president understandably is focused on the economy and his reelection. Neither is there any evidence President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to come to the negotiating table without preconditions, though the empowerment of Israel's Prime Minister may rearrange the diplomatic chessboard sufficiently for the Palestinians to finally recognize that an opportunity not to be missed is at hand.

After years of false starts, misunderstandings, political weakness and lack of trust in the three-way relationship, Netanyahu's political power play may be the one bright note in a season of otherwise dismal and deadly developments in the middle east.

Skeptics abound, but come 2013, the stars may well be aligned to produce a new environment for progress, but only if President Obama makes good on his pledge to stop Iran before it acquires nukes.

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Jockeying for Position

 

Sometimes soldiers are just symbols.  President Obama was in Australia last week, meeting with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.  Obama and Gillard were finalizing plans for a permanent American military presence in Australia.  2,500 Marines will be deployed in waves beginning next year, building up a footprint intended to shore up alliances with Asian allies like Japan and India.  Or so the U.S. says.  As most everyone understands, the token military buildup is a message directed to China.  What it is not, however, is a declaration of war, a sign of future aggression, or anything remotely approaching either.

 

China and the United States are jockeying for position in Asia, taking steps to determine how power will be apportioned in the region in the future.  The South China Sea, which also borders Australia, has been subject to a number of disputes in recent years, with China claiming sovereignty over a commercial route also contested by their neighbors.  Traditional allies like Japan, and newer ones like India, are concerned about China’s growing might, and pushed for the U.S. to demonstrate its unflagging power.  2,500 Marines are hardly capable of much in the event of actual warfare.  It is merely a symbol of the U.S.’ continued interest in affecting the course of events in Asia.

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Jewish Success Stories—Sidney Lumet

Who knew that one of the greatest filmmakers in American history was a product of the Yiddish theater?  Before he died in April of this year, Sidney Lumet had put together one of the longest, sturdiest careers in the history of Hollywood.  It was a career studded with classic films like 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, as well as expressions of his Jewish heritage.  A great American filmmaker was also a committed Jewish one.

 

Lumet had begun as a director in the earliest days of American television when he was still in his twenties, shooting features like The Dreyfus Case, about the anti-Semitic legal uproar that rocked France around the turn of the last century, and an adaptation of the Broadway show The Philadelphia Story.  By 1957, Lumet was directing his first feature film, 12 Angry Men, in which a persistent jury foreman played by Henry Fonda steadily, carefully convinces his fellow jurors of a young man’s innocence.

 

Lumet’s parents had been veterans of the Yiddish theater that had once flourished in the United States, and Lumet himself had gotten his start, at the age of five, as a bit player on the same stages.  The Jewish flavor of Lumet’s earliest work experience made its way into his mature work, both in Lumet’s persistent interest in the ethnic cubbyholes of American cities, and specifically in Lumet’s Jewish characters, in The Pawnbroker, A Stranger Among Us, which was a murder mystery set in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in New York, and other films.

 

His name made with the success of his debut, still a staple of the American film, Lumet went on to a remarkable run of film through the 1960s that included the Eugene O’Neill adaptation Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the nuclear-warfare drama Fail-Safe, and the underrated Holocaust-themed drama The Pawnbroker, in which a pawn-shop owner (played by Rod Steiger) finds the circumstances of his run-down New York neighborhood inevitably raises memories of his experience in a concentration camp.

 

Unlike many of the young filmmakers he emerged alongside, Lumet’s career never experienced a letdown, or a diminishment.  After The Pawnbroker, Lumet went on to make the New York dramas—grubby, energetic, enriched by their exploration of the city’s dark side—that he would still be remembered for: Serpico, Network, and The Verdict, and his critically acclaimed final film, 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a quietly assured tale of a robbery gone terribly wrong that offered the same easy mastery 12 Angry Men had, half a century prior.

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Loud Music and Quiet Decency

 

His father came from Poland, and his mother from Lithuania.  He was the ninth of twelve children, born and raised in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago crammed with Jewish immigrants’ children just like him.  Music was a means of advancement, grasped by parents for their children, and the boy heard the message, not just for himself, but for others left behind by American society.  And when he had a chance to challenge the order of things in the name of civil rights, he did.  By the age of ten, he was the member of a band that practiced at a local synagogue.  His hands were still too small for any of the larger instruments, so they gave him a clarinet.  His name was Benny Goodman, and he went on to become one of the great jazz musicians of the first half of the twentieth century, and without a doubt its greatest clarinetist.

 

Goodman was touring in the mid-1930s with a staid form of jazz—polite music for polite people.  Late nights, after the performances were over, he and his band would cut loose with some swing tunes for their own enjoyment—looser, louder, and more raucous than their regular material.  One night, toward the end of a dismal tour of the West Coast of the United States, Goodman got fed up and had his band play the swing numbers during a show.  The result was near-instantaneous acclaim, and a decade-long run as the King of Swing.

 

Goodman would go on to have not only the most successful big-band group of the swing era, but also the first racially integrated one.  Previously, African-American jazz musicians had played their own clubs, in their own groups, kept out of the most glamorous establishments by the entrenched racism of the era.  Goodman hired brilliant performers like guitarist Charlie Christian and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, first as part of a smaller group that would play during intervals in the big band’s show, and then as full members of the band.  If concert bookers wanted Goodman, they’d have to take it as it was.  What Goodman quietly instituted for his band in the 1940s eventually became the standard in jazz, and eventually, after the full impact of the civil rights movement, everywhere in the United States.

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Jews Who Shaped the World

 

This week, we’re introducing a new series on the blog that will hopefully become a regular feature.  I’ve devoted much of the last year to working on a book about American Jewish accomplishment, highlighting some of the untold stories of Jewish success in the United States in fields like the movies, finance, and real estate.  There were so many fascinating figures, though, who did not make their way into the book, and every month, I will feature another American Jew who accomplished remarkable things.  We will range widely, from cultural titans like jazz musician Benny Goodman and filmmaker Sidney Lumet to religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to politicians like Herbert Lehman and Joseph Lieberman.  Not all of these names may ring a bell right now, but my intention is to introduce my Chinese readers to some of the wealth and scope of American Jewish life.  And if anyone has any suggestions for individuals they would like to see profiled, please let me know in the comments!

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Crumbling Power

 

The pace of change in the Middle East is ever so slightly too slow, since the downfall of the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, to excite the cable-news junkies and headline writers. And yet, the steady attrition of support for governments like Bashar al-Assad’s, in Syria, is a marker of the remarkable changes in the region over the last few months. A report in this week’s New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/28/world/europe/turkey-is-sheltering-antigovernment-syrian-militia.html?hp) reveals that Turkey, once a close ally of Syria’s, is now providing shelter to an anti-Assad militia actively fighting the Syrian government.

 

 

The Free Syrian Army’s Turkish contingent consists of only 60 or 70 members, but its significance is outsized. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been actively muscling his way into a leadership role in Middle Eastern politics, tacking away from the region’s old guard and toward its new powers. Erdogan has been reading which way the wind is blowing, and is leaving behind guardians of the dissolving order like Assad. Turkey’s support, or lack thereof, is not enough by itself to shake Syria, but its withdrawal of confidence, and its active support for the nascent Syrian rebel movement, is indication of Assad’s slowly crumbling power.

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Setting Captives Free

 

It was with a sense of great relief that most Israelis, and Israel lovers around the world, greeted the news that Sgt. Gilad Shalit, missing since he was kidnapped by Hamas militants in 2006, was finally returned to his family, and to the state that had assiduously sought his release for the last half-decade.

 

Israel has long paid tribute to its own extreme dedication to protecting its own soldiers, and in paying the price of freeing one thousand jailed Palestinians, including many convicted of murdering Israelis, the country has proved once more its profound commitment to preserving its soldiers’ well-being at all costs. Shalit’s had been a terrible absence in Israeli life, gnawing at the country’s conscience and plaguing its political class, who seemed powerless to effect any change in their missing soldier’s circumstances. By finally reaching an agreement with Hamas, their sworn enemies in Gaza, Netanyahu’s government has achieved a coup of political theater and providing a deeply satisfactory conclusion to an ongoing national crisis.

 

The irony, of course, is that in reaffirming its life-protecting philosophy, preserving the significance of a single human life, Israel has likely confirmed that yet more of its citizens will be killed. The swap has a future component that has yet to be fulfilled, and the merits of Shalit’s release will remain partially unknown until some years have passed, and the released criminals either integrate peacefully into Palestinian life or commit further crimes. Nonetheless, every society retains certain values that it chooses to maintain above all, even at the potential price of future uncertainty or insecurity. Israel has chosen today to protect its citizens above all, and for that belief in the value of a single human life, it is to be lauded. What it may cost, though, remains unknown.


 

 

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Spy Movie

 

The story seems lifted, hastily, from a John le Carre spy novel, or a mediocre television movie. Two Iranian secret agents—one working as a used-car salesman—reached out to a man they believed was linked to a Mexican drug cartel, looking to hire a hit man to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a Washington, D.C. restaurant. The plot never went anywhere; the Federal Bureau of Investigation was in on the scheme from the outset, and the supposed cartel affiliate was nothing of the sort.

 

Most observers’ gut instinct was that this story was simply too strange to be true, but given the source—Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrests, and President Obama, along with various Saudi politicians, backed it up—it must be taken on faith as being, for the most part, factually correct. The question then becomes: at what level was the Iranian government involved in the plotting, and why would a regime that has craftily sponsored terrorist-affiliated organizations with savvy and know-how, like Hezbollah and Hamas, would get involved with such an amateurish scheme?

What did Iran hope to accomplish with such a brazen attack on American soil? By getting caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar, Iran only further underscores the battle lines of the new Middle East, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian mullahs on one side, fomenting unrest by any means necessary, and the older, American-aligned governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the like on the other. The demise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the continuing unrest of the Arab Spring spells a continued round of uncertainty in the region, which makes Iran the most powerful—and as we are continually reminded, the most unpredictable—player around.


 

 

 

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The government of China took a tentative but notable step away from established protocol this week by meeting with Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the Libyan opposition forces currently battling Muammar al-Qaddafi for control of the country. Generally speaking, China opposes intervening in the sovereign affairs of foreign countries, and has vigorously opposed such international efforts in the past. Jibril’s talks in Beijing establish a new precedent for China, and one that will be increasingly relevant as the country grows into its role as an economic titan and political force. Its repercussions will play out on both fronts.



Economically, China needs to maintain its links to energy producers. Having established a pact with Russia for its natural gas, the Chinese still need massive and steady supplies of oil. Saudi Arabia currently sells more oil to China than it does to the United States. Libya, as a major exporter of oil, is another country whom China prefers to maintain regular trade with, whether Qaddafi or the rebels are in control. Realpolitik demands the Chinese government’s flexibility, even on matters of national sovereignty.



Moreover, as China settles into its position as a superpower, it will be increasingly required to weigh in in the political realm, picking sides and weighing the costs of international interventions like the one in Libya. China has grown tremedously in part by concentrating primarily on its economic health; now, perhaps, the time has begun for it to become a fully-vested player in the political sphere, too.

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Reports from the Syrian-Turkish border indicate that refugees from the massed forces of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who have been protected for the past few months by the Turkish government, are under renewed threat. With the NATO incursion into Libya bogged down in a stalemate, and American troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, options for protecting Syrian civilians lie somewhere between minimal and nonexistent. Northwestern Syria has been a quasi-autonomous zone during the recent Syrian unrest, with civilians fleeing the danger elsewhere heading near the border with Turkey, where they are under the unofficial protection of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.



Approximately 8,000 refugees have fled into Turkey, with thousands more massing near the Turkish border. But now Assad’s forces, perhaps drawing the lesson from his father’s murderous incursion into the city of Hama in 1982, are approaching ever closer to the refugee strongholds, and the worry is that they may assault the refugees who Assad and his cronies have been persistently describing as criminals and religious extremists. And with little to no media presence inside Syria, who would even know? Buffeted by sanctions and the disdain of the West, Syria is increasingly immune to the carrots or sticks of the rest of the world. In the post-American world, the U.S., the European Union, and other major global players still carry big sticks, but swinging it has proven to result in more whiffs than home runs.



The fallout from the Arab Spring cannot help be linked, on the American side, to the sad history of recent military incursions in the Middle East. The U.S. has been weakened by its missteps, and overstretched by its responsibilities. And the rest of the world is haunted by those missteps, and loath to repeat them. But in the aftermath of the global diplomatic and military failures of the 1990s in Rwanda, Congo, and Bosnia, there is a shared sense that the mistakes of the past should not be repeated. The nightmare in Syria appears to be just beginning, but how the world can help those in the line of fire can do little more than provide support from a distance and hope for the best remains unclear.

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From the perspective of the United States, globalization means ever-increasing ties between our country and the rest of the world, leading to an unprecedented political, financial, and social intertwining of affairs. This can have its upside, providing a boon to business and unexpected dividends to cultural life, and its downside—see the international effect of the 2008 American financial crisis. But more surprisingly for American viewers, and perhaps more painful, too, is the realization that globalization spells a post-American world, to borrow a phrase from Fareed Zakaria.

 

Today brings news that China and Russia are deep into negotiations that would send 68 billion cubic meters of gas yearly to China for the next thirty years. Russia has bounced back from the depths of its post-Communist economic funk of the 1990s through its extensive oil and gas holdings, and is looking to expand beyond its current stronghold in Western Europe, whose energy needs are largely supplied by Russia. China is still growing at a dizzying pace, and must secure a steady flow of energy to propel its new cities, fuel its new cars, and provide for its new industries.

 

Russia and China, historically wary of each other, combatants in a short-lived war only forty years ago, are cementing their ties as the powers of the East. And their alliance does not run through Washington. In the new age of American fiscal and political austerity, perhaps the hardest part of the new world Americans find themselves in is the realization that the United States is no longer always at the center of global affairs.

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An era came to an end this week. With the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of the U.S. Navy Seals, in a masterfully executed operation, the mastermind of the attacks of September 11, 2001 had finally been hunted down, and a measure of justice for the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans had been won at long last. Al Qaeda has been decapitated, and the darkest threat to the safety and security of the U.S.—and the rest of the West—yet further weakened. Bin Laden’s death does not spell the end of Islamist terrorism, or of potential threats to the United States. Instead, it provides a marker to set off an ending—not the ending, but maybe an ending—to the era that began on September 11. With Bin Laden vanquished, we can state that while terrorism, as a tactic, can never be eradicated, the war on terror is over, and we won.

Much of the speculation in the United States has revolved around the potential political benefit for President Obama in the wake of Bin Laden’s death. While it is true that the president will undoubtedly be lifted in the polls by the elimination of Bin Laden, the truest measure of this monumental achievement will likely be in its effect on America’s still-fragile psyche. Americans have spent the last decade in shock, pinwheeling from grief to anxiety to anger in their response to the unprecedented attacks on New York and Washington. Perhaps now, with the death of the man responsible for those attacks, Americans can now begin to lay those weary ghosts to rest.

 

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The comparisons have been arriving, fast and furious. It’s like 1989; or 1979; or 1789. Are the demonstrations and rebellions rocking the Middle East this year a French Revolution for the region, or another Iranian Revolution? In truth, the best comparison for the events taking place across the Middle East this year is with 1848, when much of Europe erupted in revolt. In 1848, Europe was much like the Middle East today, but the region was only partially transformed. Some leaders, like King Louis-Philippe of France, were toppled, but many others held on to their power. A similar dynamic is likely to play out in the Middle East in 2011.

 

With unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Bahrain, the fate of the entire Middle East hangs in the balance. The longtime leaders of Tunisia and Egypt have already fallen, and others are likely to be forced from power before long. Not every country in the Middle East will go the way of Egypt, and part of the complexity of the unrest for world leaders—and its fascination for informed onlookers—is determining which leaders will go and which will stay.

 

The United States’ role, limited as it may be after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the general distrust of American intervention in the Middle East, will be to help pick the winners and losers from the unrest. Right now, with the NATO-led attempt to enforce a no-fly zone over the country, President Obama is staking his bet on ensuring that Muammar Qaddafi of Libya is one of those losers. Whether he’ll be able to deliver, however, remains another story entirely.

 

Obama devoted his first two years in office to fighting battles of his own choice—health care reform, financial reform, and the like. Now, world events are determining his choices, and the intervention in Libya is a risky move, whose outcome remains unknown. Will international interference be enough to topple Qaddafi, or will the wily Libyan leader figure out a way to keep his power, against the odds? The leaders of the West—Obama, Britain’s David Cameron, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy foremost among them—have banded together to ensure that there will not be another repeat of the infernal dithering over Bosnia and Kosovo that cost so many thousands of lives. President Obama should be commended for his forthright leadership in dealing with Libya, and preventing mass slaughter of civilians. But having ensured that the world will not face another Kosovo, the United States needs to be careful not to get embroiled in another Afghanistan—another military engagement without a clear resolution, or endpoint.

 

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The Council for World Jewry visited Moscow and Kyiv last month, to consult with community leaders on the ground about their concerns and our shared opportunities. We had the opportunity to brief them on developments in Washington, and hear from them about Russian and Ukrainian – and international – politics.

We had substantive meetings with a variety of community leaders, including Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia’s top business leaders and philanthropists, and a member of the Council’s Board.

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Change is sweeping across Africa this month, from Tunisia in the north to Sudan a little south, to sub-Saharan Cote d'Ivoire.

None of these unfolding and uncertain situations is directly linked. But their cumulative impact on Arab, Middle East and African politics is significant. The public is becoming more hopeful and confident, while rulers are torn between giving in to popular demands and locking down further. Did the regime in Tunisia fail to open up in time, or was the response to protesters too soft?

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Placing blame and claiming victory may be non-starters in married life, but politics and diplomacy operate under different rules (or maybe it's just dysfunctional).The West can't take credit for achieving Mideast peace if it blames Israel prematurely; JStreet knockoffs are proliferating even as the brand takes a hit; with Iran sanctions behaving like a sieve, Washington is pushing major weapons sales to stave off a resurgent Iran. Chavez celebrates his new set of invisible clothes; and China learns that total victory carries costs as well as benefits. Selected links, to stories that missed the front page, follow below…

- Shai Franklin

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A few days ago, as most world leaders were preparing to travel to New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, we hosted a small dinner with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. We were joined by a select group of community leaders and Members of Congress.

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August is supposed to be a quiet month, yet it seldom is, as underscored by the title of Barbara Tuchman’s classic book on the outbreak of World War I: “The Guns of August.” On a diplomatic level, the past several months have been full of activity and new developments. The Gaza “flotilla”, Iran sanctions, Israeli-Palestinian “proximity talks”, and last month’s nearly simultaneous attacks on Israel from Gaza, Sinai, and Lebanon. On a substantive level, ironically, the situation in the region is trending forward.

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We Can’t Afford to Give Up on the United Nations Opinion By Jack Rosen. For many Americans, and most Israelis, the words “United Nations” conjure up an image of an albatross at best, and a vulture at worst. Anti-Israel agendas, advanced by Islamic nations, routinely dominate the General Assembly and the U.N. human rights entities. Without the American veto, Israel would long ago have been the target of hostile binding resolutions in the Security Council.

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The great threat casting a shadow over Israel is a nuclear attack from a militant regime like Iran or Syria, or a terrorist movement.

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead the Council’s second delegation to North Korea, a significant supplier of missiles and advanced technology to Iran, and to Syria where in 2007 Israeli warplanes reportedly destroyed a North Korean-supplied nuclear facility.

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