Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon last week was a “watershed” that rammed home for many in the Arab world the realization that the Iranian leader does indeed have hegemonic designs in the region, Malcolm Hoenlein told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.

Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said at a briefing with the Post’s editorial staff that Ahmadinejad’s Lebanon visit was a “game changer” because it gave Iran a foothold in the Mediterranean, something it had sought and failed to achieve for centuries.

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This, along with Teheran’s ties with Syria and Gaza, the infrastructure it is building in Iraq and its presence in certain eastern provinces in Saudi Arabia, said Hoenlein, is all bringing home to many the reality of Iran’s drive for regional dominance.

Hoenlein said one indication of the degree to which the Arab world is taking notice is the recent resumption of commercial air traffic between Egypt and Iran, cut off following the 1979 Iranian revolution.

“The relationship between the two countries has been terrible,” he said. “But Egypt is looking at the situation and doesn’t have confidence that Iran will be stopped. They are hedging their bets, and this is the first step.”

Breaking with conventional wisdom that the mullahs – not Ahmadinejad – are the real power behind the Iranian throne, Hoenlein said that Ahmadinejad and his supporters are very much in control in the country, and pointed out that after the violent protests in the summer of 2009, Ahmadinejad replaced mayors across the country.

“He has manipulated the system,” Hoenlein said. “The balance of power has shifted; he is a key force – the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which backs him, is in control of the army, navy and air force.”

Hoenlein said that his organization has had an impact in reframing the way the Iranian threat is perceived in the US, and that if a couple years ago some 80 percent of Americans saw Iran as an Israeli issue, and only 20 percent viewed it in terms of a threat to the world, now those numbers have been reversed.

On other matters, Hoenlein said the Conference – which is very active at the UN – is concerned about recent talk that the Palestinians will try to get a UN resolution supportive of their positions.

“One of our concerns is that the Palestinians not utilize the UN as a vehicle for bypassing negotiations,” he said. “Even though it won’t be recognition of a state, this would put Israel into a more disadvantageous position, and would make a return to negotiations much more difficult.”

There is increasing concern in Jerusalem that if the current negotiations with the Palestinians break down completely, the Palestinians may go to the UN and ask for recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines, or for a resolution declaring the settlements illegal.

The Palestinians have an automatic majority in the General Assembly and, at the drop of a hat, could muster some 140 states – members of the Non- Aligned Movement – to pass these types of resolutions. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa is believed to be advocating such a move.

Hoenlein said what was needed now was to work to ensure that the Americans, Europeans and others realize that a knee-jerk response to this type of proposal – voting for it because it would be voting with the majority – would be counterproductive.

This was not necessarily an impossible mission, he said, noting there were a “lot of countries that get it.”

Pointing to Greece, which will be the focus of the Conference’s upcoming annual meeting, and India, Hoenlein said Israel “is not as isolated as people think.”

Regarding the US-Israel relationship, Hoenlein said it is often better than portrayed, and that the military component – in terms of joint exercises and coordination – is better than it was under former president George W. Bush.

As for the political component, which Hoenlein described in diplomatic terms as “challenged” at times, he said no one knows what the impact of the November midterm elections will be.

But, he said, “Fundamental policy won’t change,” even if – as expected – the Democrats take a beating at the polls.

Hoenlein warned that, “disorderly change,” something he defined as huge “pendulum shifts” in societies in one direction or the other, is generally not good for the Jews.

He added, however that this shouldn’t be interpreted as concern about the Tea Party movement, which is poised to make huge gains in the elections, and that the movement is “by and large very pro-Israel and sympathetic.”

Rather, he said, he was speaking of “when you have disruptions in society, tidal wave shifts instead of the normal transitions; not just in America but in Europe as well. When you have these types of disruptions in the fabric of society, dissatisfaction and frustration, they can be manifest in many ways, and they are often in ways that are hostile to us.

“Jews thrive in stability, and I believe instability works against us,” he said.

Hoenlein did say he was worried that the model of delegitimization of Israel that has been evident in Britain, where it starts with the elites and trickles downward, is beginning to be seen in the US as well.

“We are seeing it in the US,” he said. “In academia, in the arts, in the media and other area, things are said today that were not heard in the past. It is subtle, not cataclysmic, but you see it on campus, and in the media.”

Hoenlein likened this type of delegitimization to a tumor that “grows quietly, and that by the time you notice, it is too late.”

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