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'When nothing else works, there is always Israel!" This is how the late Egyptian journalist Lutfi al-Khuli liked to describe the motto of Arab radicalism decades ago. The analysis was apt because the Arab obsession with Israel did work on countless occasions.
Despots used Israel as an excuse for their brutal rule. Corrupt leaders adopted an anti-Israel rhetoric as a diversion from their misdeeds. Confused intellectuals used Israel as an object of hate to hide their ineptitude.
Arab radicals were not alone in using Israel as the "other," whose hoped-for destruction would be the ultimate act of redemption for peoples seemingly abandoned by history. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic in Iran, also used anti-Israel rhetoric whenever he found himself in a tight corner.
MORE RECENTLY, three men have tried to play the Israel card as a means of getting out of their respective tight corners: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic, President Bashar Assad of Syria, and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah. The reason is that these members of the triple alliance are under increasing pressure both from their domestic constituencies and from international opinion.
Ahmadinejad is under pressure to respond to a carrots-and-stick offer by the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany. He knows that a positive response to the offer could mark the end for his strategy of extending the Islamic Republic's influence throughout the Middle East. At the same time he knows that a rejection of the package could isolate his regime, bring about international sanctions and weaken his already shaky rule inside Iran.
To avoid that choice Ahmadinejad decided to play the Israel card. This meant moving the Hizbullah pawn that the Islamic Republic created in Lebanon in 1982 and has financed, trained and armed for the past quarter-century.
It is no accident that during the past 10 weeks arms supplies to Hizbullah have increased dramatically. In the same period the Islamic Republic's defense minister has met with Hizbullah leaders and commanders on at least two occasions.
According to Iranian media, the Islamic Republic has also increased the size of its military advisory delegation to Hizbullah as a "precaution against Israeli aggression."
SYRIA'S PRESIDENT Assad also found himself in need of an "Israel diversion." He and members of his family and administration risk indictment for alleged involvement in the murder of Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. Worse still, his regime's opponents have just created a united front in which senior ex-Ba'athists sit alongside leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and prominent liberal and social-democratic figures.
Assad has tried to survive by becoming a liege of Teheran; but he knows that his Iranian masters might abandon him at any time.
Provoking a new conflict with Israel over Lebanon could give Assad a chance to cast himself in the role of the peacemaker. Buthaina Shaaban, one of Assad's aides, has hinted that, if allowed to return to Lebanon, the Syrians would be prepared to disarm Hizbullah and make sure that the Lebanese border with Israel is as calm as the cease-fire line between Israel and Syria has been for decades.
Assad may also be prepared to drop Hamas, just as he dropped the PKK as part of a deal he made with Turkey a decade ago.
The third member of the triple alliance, Hizbullah, also needs an Israeli diversion. With the departure of the Syrians and the beginnings of democratization in Lebanon, Hizbullah has found itself increasingly isolated. Its performance in Lebanon's first democratic general election was disappointing, to say the least.
Even more disappointing was its failure to fight the new democratic forces in the streets. Each time Hizbullah organized a demonstration against democratic forces, the latter responded with even bigger crowds. It is clear that the overwhelming majority of Lebanese want to see Hizbullah disarmed so that the country can have a single army under government control.
So what better tactic for Hizbullah than inventing a new war with Israel to remind the Lebanese that they still need the militia as their "national resistance"?
THE TROUBLE for Ahmadinejad, Assad and Hizbullah is that the Israel diversion may not work this time as it has done in the past.
The current conflict may have diverted some attention at the G-8 from the Iranian nuclear dossier. But the issue is unlikely to fade away.
Ahmadinejad knows that there is no substantial anti-Israel constituency inside Iran. His hope, therefore, is to win the support of the Arab regimes and masses for his ultra-radical stance against Israel. However, that has not happened. With the exception of Syria, no Arab regime has rallied behind the Islamic Republic over the nuclear issue. As for the mythical Arab Street, there is no evidence that it is about to explode in support of Ahmadinejad.
As for Syria, it is unlikely that the current conflict in Lebanon will divert international attention from the Assad regime's involvement in the Hariri murder. Nor is there any evidence that Washington may be prepared to make a deal with Damascus to insure the Assad regime in exchange for its cooperation on other issues, including disarming Hizbullah.
THE BIGGEST loser from this new Israel diversion may well be Hizbullah. Neither the Islamic Republic nor Syria is prepared to risk a bigger war in order to save it from destruction.
This was made clear Friday, when Ahmadinejad, speaking during a provincial tour, called on the "international community" to end the conflict by "restraining Israel." This was strange - coming from a man who, before the current fighting, had vowed to destroy Israel on more than a dozen occasions.
Inside Lebanon, Hizbullah has failed to enlist the support of General Michel Aoun, the Maronite politician who has signed an alliance with Nasrallah.
Ahmadinejad, Assad and Hizbullah may well have planned for a limited conflict with Israel, one in which the Jewish state would ultimately back down, handing them a moral victory. Their plan may have been based on the assumption that Israel would not dare widen the scope of the war triggered by Hamas and Hizbullah.
Today, the trio find themselves alone. Most Arabs refuse to be dragged into a bigger war - in the shaping of which they had no say. Moreover, most Lebanese do not see why they should risk the destruction of their country solely to allow Hizbullah to remain a state within a state.
The "Israel diversion" tactic may have passed its sell-by date.
The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.
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