Jews are facing a "gathering storm" with multiple threats from Iran, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Hamas and international terrorism unmatched since the 1930s, former justice minister Irwin Cotler told a Jerusalem conference yesterday.

Speaking on the opening day of the Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, Mr. Cotler warned that "radical Islam threatens international peace, security and human rights" and moderate Muslims as well as Jews, amounting to an environment Israel has not seen since the rise of Nazi Germany.

In his keynote address, titled "The Gathering Storm," Mr. Cotler expressed concerns about a dangerous Mideast environment combining Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran with the election of Hamas in Palestinian elections and the emergence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon "as a state within a state."

While many of these developments are at least a year old, the events "have not only intensified, but congealed, constituting now what may be called a gathering storm," he said.

He noted that when Hamas took over the Gaza strip and refugee camps in Lebanon, both erupted in violence due to the infiltration of Islamic militants.

"Since last year, Iran not only continues to incite a Mideast Holocaust but now also denies that the European one occurred," he said.

"There's been a quantum leap forward in Iran acquiring lethal atomic capabilities and increased state support for international and Mideast terrorism."

Mr. Cotler also criticized the United Nations' Human Rights Council for passing many resolutions against Israel while letting offending countries off the hook, constituting "a country-specific indictment."

But Israel can count on geopolitics and allies it did not have in the 1930s, he stressed.

"It is not 1938. There is a Jewish state as an antidote to Jewish vulnerability," he said.

"There are non-Jews prepared to join together in common cause with the Jewish people and Israel's not alone."

It can count on such allies as Canada and the United States as well as developing relations with such emerging powers as China and India, he said.

"I do believe there is a gathering storm, but there is no inevitability about the negatives," said the Liberal MP and opposition critic for human rights.

The conference, organized by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, brings together Jewish leaders from around the world to discuss strategies to deal with threats and challenges facing Jewish people.

Approximately 120 participants, including Israel's President- elect Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well as former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dennis Ross, were taking part in the conference.

Reflecting this balance of threats and opportunity, Mr. Olmert urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to begin direct peace negotiations between the two countries yesterday, one day after Mr. Olmert reiterated Israel's determination to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Mr. Olmert has come under pressure to resign after a government report accused him of committing a series of errors in his handling of the war in Lebanon last summer.

The fighting broke out on July 12, 2006, and left 1,100 Lebanese dead, mostly from Israeli air raids, but also killed 163 Israelis. Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel before a United Nations-brokered cease-fire was declared on Aug. 14.

(Copyright National Post 2007)