Uri Avnery's Column 

The Last Refuge


ISRAEL IS an island in the global sea. We live in a bubble. This week I was sharply reminded of this.

I was returning home from Germany. On the eve of the flight, all TV networks, from CNN and BBC to the German channels, were reporting on the events in Pakistan. In the airplane, I opened Israel's largest circulation tabloid, Yedioth Aharonoth, in order to read about the Pakistani mess. I did not find any mention of it on page 1. Nor on page 2. I found a small item on page 27. The first pages were devoted to something much more important: the shouts of protest by right-wing football hooligans when they were requested to stand up in memory of Yitzhak Rabin.

The next day, Yedioth found an Israeli angle that enabled it to put Pakistan on the front page after all: the fear that the Pakistani nuclear bomb would fall into the hands of Osama bin Laden, who would aim it at Israel. Hallelujah, there is again something to be afraid of.

But the putsch by Pervez Musharaf is a serious matter. It could well have far-reaching effects for the world in general, and for Israel in particular.

THE MAIN victim - besides, of course, the hundreds of political activists who have been thrown into prison - is George W. Bush.

Machiavelli said that it is preferable for the prince to be feared rather than loved. In the same vein, it can be said that it is preferable for a president to be hated rather than derided.

And derision is what George W. is attracting. He has asserted in the past that his main task was to bring democracy to the Muslim world, and has assured us that the implementation of this aim was well under way. That is a laughable pretense.

What is happening in fact?

  • In Iraq one tyrant has been overthrown, and dozens of small local tyrants have taken over. The country is bleeding and falling apart. The "democratic elections" have brought to power a government that hardly governs the Green Zone in Baghdad, which has to be secured by American soldiers.
  • In Afghanistan an "elected" president hardly rules the capital, Kabul. In the rest of the country, local chieftains are in control. And the Taliban are slowly and steadily re-conquering the country.
  • In Iran, democratic elections have brought to power an uninhibited politician with a big mouth and small achievements, whose favorite occupation is to curse the American Crusaders and the "Zionist entity".
  • In Syria there is a stable dictatorship, which can carry on mainly because the Syrians believe that any alternative would be worse.
  • Turkey is ruled by a religious Islamic government, with the wife of the president wearing a headscarf. More than 10 million Kurdish citizens are oppressed and discriminated against. Not a few of them are fighting a guerilla war. In the course of the campaign against the Kurds, the Turkish army is about to invade neighboring Iraq, happy to have an opportunity to destroy the practically independent Kurdish regime there.
  • Lebanon is as far from democracy as ever. Real democratic elections, in which every citizen can vote directly for parliament without sectarian divisions, are out of the question. A new president has to be elected, but that is well-nigh impossible, the gulf between the sects is so wide. This week, Hizbullah conducted large-scale maneuvers near the Israeli borders. Even the Israeli army was impressed.
  • In Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the three "moderate" (read: dictatorial and pro-American) countries, there is a very original kind of democracy. Political opposition is languishing in prison.
  • In Palestine, impeccable elections were held under strict international supervision, the only really democratic elections in the Arab world. George Bush would have been proud of them, if - alas - they had not been won by the "wrong" crowd - Hamas. Now, Israeli army intelligence prophesies that President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush's favorite, may fall immediately after the Annapolis conference, if, as expected, it ends in failure.
  • And now, Pakistan. It seemed that there, at least, Bush was harvesting successes. He had brought back Benazir Bhutto, another Bush favorite, and everything looked fine: a democratic regime was about to be re- installed, the president was about to hang up his uniform and form a coalition with Bhutto. But then a bomb exploded next to her armored car, dozens were killed. The president-general, who was just waiting for such an opportunity, carried out a coup d'etat against himself, and, instead of his moderate dictatorship, has set up a much more harsh regime, like a Pakistani version of the late Saddam Hussein.

As in a Hollywood comedy, George Bush is standing there with a custard pie splattered all over his face. He looks ridiculous.

NO PRESIDENT likes being ridiculous. Scary - OK. Evil - OK. Dumb - OK. But ridiculous - never!

That may have a direct bearing on a question that is worrying the whole world, myself included: Will he attack Iran?

The temptation is almost overwhelming. In another year, his term in office will come to an end. After eight years, he has nothing to show for it - except a continuous series of failures. But a man who (he says) holds daily talks with God cannot leave the stage of history like that.

He is longing for some sort of success in Annapolis. At the most, there will be an empty declaration signed by the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There will be some good photo opportunities, but that will not satisfy the lions. Something much bigger is needed, something that will leave its mark in the annals of history.

What better than saving humanity from the Iranian nuclear bomb?

The German language has the expression "Flucht nach vorne" - an escape forwards. If you don’t know what to do any more, attack your nearest enemy. Thus Napoleon invaded Russia, followed years later by Hitler. Bush may attack Iran for similar reasons.

I suspect that the decision has already been made and that the preparations are already rolling. There is no proof of that, but Bush behaves as if he has decided on war.

Washington's huge propaganda machine is working full-time to prepare the ground. Anyone who opposes is run over. According to the polls, the American public's support for the war is rising from day to day. The majority is already in favor. The new French president, behaving like a hyperactive schoolboy, has already jumped on the bandwagon and has supplanted Tony Blair as Bush's poodle.

ISRAEL IS SUPPOSED to play a central role in this piece.

Here, too, a huge brain-washing machine is already at work. The Foreign Office has joined the effort and has started a world-wide campaign to besmirch Mohammed al-Baradei, the highly respected chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Every day, the obedient media publish reports by correspondents and commentators, who are but thinly disguised spokesmen for the army and the government. They tell us that within a year and a half Iran will already have a nuclear bomb, and that this will be the end of Israel and the world. As the Hebrew expression goes, the remedy must come before the disease. Therefore: Bomb! Bomb! Bomb!

One of the possible scenarios: Israel will bomb first. The Iranians will respond by launching missiles at Israel. The US will enter the action "to save Israel". Which American politician will dare to object? Who? Hillary Clinton??

Bush is dreaming again about a war without American casualties. A "surgical" air strike. A hail of "smart" bombs pours down on thousands of Iranian targets - nuclear, governmental, military and civil. What a sweet dream: Iran soon surrenders. The regime of the Ayatollahs collapses. The son of the late Shah takes his place on the throne of his father, who himself was once restored to power by American bayonets.

As I have said in the past, I am not convinced by this scenario. What will actually happen is that Iran will close the strait of Hormuz. Through this strait, named after an ancient Persian deity, flows 20% of the world's oil supplies. It is 270 km long and, at its narrowest, only 35 km wide. A few missiles and mines are enough to close it. That would be tolerable if the war lasted a few days. But if it goes on for weeks and months, it will cause a profound world-wide crisis.

And the war will indeed go on. There will be no escape for the US from committing very large ground forces to conquer first the region bordering on the straits, and then the entire big country. The US has no available ground forces left - even before the American forces in Iraq are exposed to missile attacks from Iran and to guerilla actions from the Shiites, who make up the majority in Iraq.

This will not be a quick and easy war. Iran is different from Iraq. Unlike Iraq, with its various peoples and sects, Iran is comparatively homogenous. This war will be an Iraq war multiplied by 10, perhaps by 100.

AND WE? How shall we get through this war?

Since the government of Israel and its American allies are pushing with all their political might for the attack, Israel will not be able to avoid contributing to the fighting, if the Americans request it. First our Air Force will be deployed, later land forces may be required.

But Israel itself will also become a battlefield. The pathetic missiles of Saddam Hussein caused, in their time, panic in Tel-Aviv. What will the Iranian missiles do?

The Arab governments will be compelled to support the US, at least with their tongues. But the hearts and souls of the Arab peoples, from Morocco to Iraq, will be with the Iranians defending themselves against the Americans and Israelis. Especially if the Annapolis meeting does end, as expected, without bringing redemption to the Palestinian people.

There is only one way to come out of this in one piece - not to get into it in the first place. But, after all the dismal failures he has suffered in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan - what can persuade Bush to resist the temptation? And how to persuade Ehud Olmert, who longs for a way out of the quagmire he is stuck in?

It has been said that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel". For a failed politician, the last refuge is war.