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A nuclear Iran is not just Israel’s concern

On the eve of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama, a confluence of political developments has positioned Israel on the world stage in a way that it did not seek, nor, frankly, deserves. Speculation is rife about whether and when the Israeli leader will order his air force to hit nuclear facilities in Iran

What the two leaders say publicly after their White House meeting Monday will say a lot about the current alignment of American and Israeli views of the Iranian nuclear threat. How their statements are interpreted and what is not said will fuel further speculation.

This White House meeting gains added significance because it comes in the midst of a heated presidential campaign that is playing out in public at AIPAC’s policy conference. 

President Obama and the Republican candidates, each of whom has offered, in the GOP debates, his own prescription for dealing with Iran, including the military option, are addressing the gathering, as is Netanyahu. 

Media coverage will embellish every word spoken before the pro-Israel lobby organization, magnifying the already widespread impression that Iran is solely Israel’s problem.

That is a dangerously misguided perception. 

The threat is global. It demands an effective international response.

For decades, much of the world ignored the ramifications of Iran’s nuclear program. Efforts to find a diplomatic solution encountered repeated roadblocks from Iran, which continued to erect more nuclear facilities, expand the number of its centrifuges and increase production of enriched uranium.

The UN Security Council passed four resolutions, the last one in June 2010, and the U.S. and EU countries imposed a series of economic sanctions. But until quite recently, many nations seemed busy rearranging deck chairs on the good ship Earth, ignoring the approaching iceberg of an expanding Iranian nuclear program.

The turning point came in November 2011, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released an exhaustive report confirming that Iran is pursuing a nuclear program that has a military component. 

In January, the EU joined with the U.S. in ending all transactions with Iran’s Central Bank, and announced a phase-out of purchasing Iranian oil by July.

But crippling sanctions have not stopped Iran’s leaders. Rather, they appear emboldened to reach the finish line of nuclear weapons production. Hence Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s conclusion that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon within a year.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, bears the burden that has weighed heavily on every Israeli prime minister since the country’s founding in 1948. What must be done to ensure the security of Israel and all of its citizens?

Israel has always looked to the United States for maximum understanding and support -- no easy task in a world where Israel’s neighbors have pursued an endless, violent struggle to destroy the Jewish state. 

Repeatedly in the history of Israel, the prime minister of the day has not waited to be attacked, but rather took the initiative, when deemed necessary, to safeguard Israel’s security. 

The preemptive attacks on Egypt and Syria in June 1967, the destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and of Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007 are the best known examples.

In 2012, the Middle East has become a very uncertain place. 

The evolving “Arab Spring” presents enormous challenges to the Obama administration and whoever wins the November election. 

For Israel, though, the threats are existential. The problems on Israel’s borders -- Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in a politically unstable Egypt, and complete chaos in Syria as the Assad regime butchers its own citizens -- are each volatile, and together highly combustible.

The Iranian nuclear threat trumps them all. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states recognize that Iran, the chief state sponsor of terrorism, already threatens their own security, and the EU concurs with the U.S. on the risks to global security. 

They and other countries must implement every form of sanctions, and ensure that the Iranians know, as President Obama told The Atlantic, that every conceivable step will be taken to stop the production of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

But having consistently ignored the IAEA, the UN, and the increasingly punishing sanctions that target its banking and energy sectors, the regime in Tehran may remain defiant. The U.S. and other countries will need to consider setting a date certain for Iran to stop its program.

Ultimately, it’s not fair to expect Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, to wait patiently as Iran—which vows to wipe Israel off the map, denies the Holocaust and is the main supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas—gets closer to crossing the nuclear-weapons threshold. 

Central to Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama is the question of whom Israelis can trust, other than themselves, to guarantee their security. The answer will determine what actions the prime minister takes to protect his country.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Media Relations.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.