Will war break out in the summer? In Israel, people still want to believe that the powers stabilizing the Middle East are stronger than the powers destabilizing it. They believe in the ostensible deterrence achieved in the north and south during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. However, Jordan's King Abdullah is not the only one warning about war in the summer. Other international figures who know the region well fear a sudden military escalation. We can't know when the next war will break out, they say. We also can't know where, but the Middle East has become a powder keg. Between the summers of 2010 and 2011, that keg can catch fire.
The main war scenario is that of a conflict with Iran. If next year the United States or Israel uses force against Iran, Iran will strike back. The Iranian attack will be both direct and indirect. The indirect strike will be by Hezbollah. When Israel responds, Syria might not stand idly by. War between Israel, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah will not resemble any war we have known in the past. Hundreds of missiles will land on Tel Aviv. Thousands of people will be killed. Hundreds of missiles will hit air force bases and Israel Defense Forces command centers. Hundreds of soldiers will be killed. The crushing Israeli counterstrike will demolish Beirut and Damascus. Israel will win, but the victory will be painful and costly.
The second war scenario is that of a reconciliation with Iran. If next year U.S. President Barack Obama acts toward Iran the way George W. Bush acted toward North Korea, Iran will go nuclear. If Obama prevents Israel from acting against Iran and does not act itself, Iran will become a leading power in the Middle East. The outcome will be a loss of respect in the Sunni world for the United States and a loss of inhibitions in the Shi'ite and radical world vis-a-vis Israel. A serious conflict could then break out between Israel and Hamas, Israel and Hezbollah and perhaps even Israel and Syria. A violent deterioration could also occur between Israel and other neighbors.
A loss of U.S. strategic hegemony would mean that opponents of the West will shake up the Middle East. A loss of Israel's strategic monopoly would result in attacks on it by old and new enemies. The age of relative quiet that has typified Israeli-Arab relations for the past 35 years will be over forever.
The conclusion is clear: The essential task now in the Middle East is the prevention of war. That's not the same as pursuing peace. Sometimes it's precisely the attempt to achieve an unattainable peace that ignites a war. In the current sensitive situation, there must be no illusions and no mistakes. Political correctness must not be allowed to cause a historic disaster. And when the glasses of political correctness are taken off, a clear picture emerges. To prevent war in the Middle East, the United States and Israel must show strength and generosity, deterrence and moderation. Together they must promote a cautious and gradual diplomatic process that will weaken the region's extremists, strengthen its moderates and curb Iran. They must maintain the democratic alliance that has stabilized western Asia for two generations.
The main responsibility now rests with the United States. The Netanyahu government has made many mistakes over the past year, but so has the Obama administration. The latter has wasted 15 precious months in dialogue with Iran without imposing any sanctions and maintaining the illusion of an immediate Israeli-Palestinian peace. The open, unilateral pressure Washington has exerted on Jerusalem has both distanced peace and brought war closer. Therefore, if the Obama administration does not want the next war to be named after it, it must urgently change its policies. It must demand the possible from Israel, not the imaginary. It must demand what is essential from Iran. It must show determined and sober leadership that will prevent war now and lead to peace tomorrow.
The volcano that erupted last week in Iceland will be nothing compared to the volcano that could erupt in the near future in the Middle East. But the volcano here is a human one. People are stoking it and people can also cool it down. The lives of hundreds of millions now depend on the wisdom and careful consideration of one man: Barack Obama.
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