The Hum of the Centrifuges

Only after the great international crisis of 2007 of the West versus Iran can Israel return to the routine of the conflict, the occupation and the shaping of its borders.

Can you hear the humming? It is a little difficult. The celebration of the billions made by Warren Buffet and Eitan Wertheimer deafens the ears. The celebrations of the 25 ministers appointed by Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz are also very loud. And there is the hip-hop of the convergence. And the trance of a climbing stock market. But if you concentrate and make an effort, it is still possible to hear the hum of the centrifuges. They are turning on their axes - once cascade after the other, one and then another percentage point worth of enrichment - the clock quietly ticking toward a global crisis.

The news is in the papers, but it is not being internalized. For the most part, the information is accessible, but it has not hit home. We are at the threshold of a genuinely historic moment.

On the face of it, the basic facts are known: Iran is not Libya or South Africa. It will not give up its nuclear program willingly. But Iran is also not India nor Pakistan. The West cannot accept Iran's nuclear project. Therefore, the confrontation is inevitable. In the best case scenario, it will end the way the Cuban missile crisis did; in the worst case scenario, it will turn ugly and irradiate the Middle East.

The timetable is also more or less known. At the diplomatic level, the crisis may peak as early as this summer. From a military standpoint, the crisis may reach its zenith in the winter, after the U.S. congressional elections. Either way, 2007 will be a critical year. It poses a challenge to the West of a kind that it has not faced since the Cold War. For Israel, it is a date with destiny.

The leaders know this. George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and Angela Merkel understand what they are facing. So do some of Israel's leaders. The strategic institutions of the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Israel are working in close, serious and substantive cooperation, as is appropriate to the situation. However, international and Israeli public opinion appear to not fully comprehend the situation. They follow the events without fully understanding their meaning and scope.

In private conversations, more and more experts in Israel and worldwide express serious concern. When the international community is faced with the Iranian nuclear threat, it has four alternatives: acquiescence, diplomatic action, American military action, or a situation in which Israeli is forced to act.

An Israeli operation is at the bottom of the list: Its ramifications are liable to be severe. But even an American military operation would cause a regional earthquake, damage the economies of the West and result in an attack against Israel. Acquiescing in an Iranian bomb is out of the question, and a diplomatic solution is not likely. As such, there is no good solution on the horizon. The likely choice is between bad and terrible.

In all this brouhaha, Israel is behaving like an ostrich. The Middle East is on the verge of going nuclear, and the locals are obsessed with the convergence. Yet it is clear that there is no convergence without American leadership. Equally clearly, the United States is a superpower that cannot simultaneously manage the battle against Iran, the war in Iraq and the Israeli withdrawal. It is therefore evident that the convergence will have to wait. The vital task of dealing with the settlements will have to wait until after the urgent task of dealing with the centrifuges has been completed.

The most important decision of this decade will be made in the coming months by one man: Bush. And Israel's role is to assist this one man, who is under great pressure, to make the right decision, in the right way and under the right circumstances. Israel must humbly stand by his side while he makes a final attempt to prevent disaster by imposing sanctions and while he considers the other alternatives. Israel must not make it difficult for him, and should not divert his attention from the priority.

Israel's role now is to keep a low profile: It should stick to the road map, deal with the illegal outposts and not draw any unusual attention to itself. It must help Western public opinion to understand the inevitable and also prepare Israeli public opinion for the unavoidable. Only after the great international crisis of 2007 can Israel return to the routine of the conflict, the occupation and the shaping of its borders. Only after the hum of the centrifuges has been silenced will it be possible to seriously deal with the systematic uprooting of settlements.