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Change on the Iran Front

Israel’s new year got off to a promising start with a rare dose of good news on its most troubling battlefront: the Iranian nuclear threat. As it happened, Iran was also high on the agenda in New York when the world’s leaders gathered for the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly, right after Rosh Hashanah. The good news is that Israel was on the same side as the rest of the world for a change, while its worst enemy was the bad guy.

The change was apparent from the moment that Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rose to address the General Assembly and found himself facing a half-empty hall as dozens of delegations demonstratively walked out on him. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got a far more polite reception the next day with a speech rejecting Ahmadinejad’s bigoted rant and demanding of the delegations that sat through it: “Have you no shame?”

The important developments, however, were outside the assembly hall, in back rooms where the six big powers leading talks with Tehran — America, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — were preparing for a face-to-face showdown in Geneva. Israeli leaders were alarmed last spring when President Obama raised the prospect of dropping the Bush-era boycott and joining the Iran talks. Jerusalem feared Obama would let the Europeans soften America’s stance. What happened was the opposite: With America leading the team, the big powers toughened their stance. Even Russia is now talking about serious sanctions if and when dialogue fails, leaving China as the only outlier.

Several factors contributed to this new resolve. One was Obama’s well-timed decision, with close British and French backing, to expose the secret nuclear plant that Iran had been hiding. The disclosure badly damaged Iran’s credibility and reinforced Israel’s warnings that the mullahs intend the worst.

Also contributing was Obama’s cancellation of missile defense systems planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic. Shelving the cold-war relic immediately improved Moscow’s appetite for cooperation with Washington.

Third, Netanyahu’s posture in recent months, including his endorsement of Palestinian statehood, helped his image and reduced the irritant potency of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. That weakened the impulse that’s all too common in much of the world community to oppose anything Israel wants, just because Israel wants it.

Getting the world to line up with Israel takes two steps: making other nations see a shared interest and reducing the knee-jerk hostility that Israel so often faces on the world stage. This fall, America under Obama helped take care of the first by deft diplomacy. Israel under Netanyahu is working on the second by taking steps to appear a good global citizen, eager to reduce tensions when possible.

It’s a good formula in the best of times. Facing an existential threat like Iran, it’s essential.

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