...but somebody has to do it

The list of countries that might not mind seeing Israel stick it to the Iranians is long - but that doesn't mean any of them would do it themselves.

So now it's official. The Israeli air force is in an advanced stage of training to attack Iranian nuclear installations. If the massive overflight of the eastern Mediterranean by Israeli jets earlier this month was indeed the "dress rehearsal" for such an attack that it has been called, it was a rehearsal to which the public was invited - or at least, the intelligence agencies of the countries that tracked the operation on their radar screens. You don't, of course, conduct such an operation when you have already decided to strike; at that point, the more secrecy, the better. You conduct it when you don't want to strike and think your only hope of avoiding it is to convince the world that you will do it unless you are given a good reason not to. This month's air maneuvers, it might be said, were Israel's plea to the world to be shown that such a reason exists. But the world is not going to oblige. The same countries that were too short-sighted and greedy to do anything significant about stopping the Iranian nuclear-bomb program ten, five, or two years ago, when oil prices were low and Iran were vulnerable to economic and diplomatic pressures, are not about to lift a finger now. Even a year ago, when climbing oil prices had already ruled out the economic feasibility of an embargo on Iranian oil, a sudden freeze on Iran's assets and funds by Western governments could have caused the Iranian leadership to think twice. Now, while these governments have predictably wasted yet another year by jawing toothlessly away about the need for sanctions, Iran has reportedly transferred most of those assets and funds elsewhere. NOR IS President Bush likely to leave the White House in a blaze of penetration bombs by ordering a last-minute American attack on Iran. The Republican Party wants to win the November election, and the president knows that Americans fighting in another Middle-Eastern country and $200-or-more-a-barrel oil is not going to help. Bush has talked more bravely about stopping the Iranians than any other Western leader, but what he has not done until now will not be done before his term is over - unless, that is, he chooses to do it between the elections and his successor's inauguration in January, which would be a historically unprecedented use of lame-duck power that is hard to imagine. And John McCain? If elected, he might be Israel's last chance of not having to go it alone. But McCain himself doesn't know at this stage what he would do, and he is currently behind in the polls. Barack Obama would be only slightly more likely to attack Iran than Vladimir Putin. He has already made it clear that he would rather talk to the Iranians than fight them, and they will be delighted to discuss with him any subject he chooses while the centrifuges go on spinning in Natanz. Of course, even a President Obama, let alone a President McCain, might be supportive of an Israeli attack should it take place. In general, as evidenced by the muted international response to the Israeli air exercise, the list of countries that might not mind seeing Israel stick it to the Iranians is a long one. Besides the US, it might include quite a few European states and even some Arab ones. As long as they themselves don't have to run the risk of a) military failure, b) retaliatory Iranian missile and terror attacks, and c) being blamed for astronomical oil prices, plenty of governments would permit themselves a hidden smile of satisfaction while voting to condemn an Israeli attack at the United Nations. ISRAELIS HAVE every right to feel anger at such hypocrisy. True, a nuclear Iran would be more of a menace to them than to others, but it would be a menace to nearly everyone. There is something genuinely revolting about a world that preaches the need for peacefully dissuading the Iranians from developing atomic weapons while knowingly practicing a policy that in the end leaves Israel no choice but to send its planes into the air. Israelis also have the right to feel fear. A lot could go wrong with an attack on Iran. Iranian targets could be missed or insufficiently damaged; dummy objectives could be hit while the real ones are kept secret in the earth; Israeli planes could be shot down and Israeli pilots taken hostage; Israeli towns and cities could come under heavy missile and rocket fire not just from Iran, but from Lebanon, Gaza, and even Syria; Israeli casualties could run into the many thousands. Anyone who thinks that Israel is straining at the leash to get at the Iranians has not the slightest conception of its society. Israelis are good and scared of attacking Iran, as they should be. They are just even more scared of an Iran that could annihilate them, as Iranian leaders have repeatedly said they would love to do. But Israelis also have the right to feel pride - pride not only that they have one of the few air forces in the world with the military capability to stop Iran, but also that history has chosen them, even if they would rather it had chosen someone else, to be in the front ranks of the campaign. Even now, it is not too late for them to hope that they will have partners. And if it is not a hope that has much to lean on, at least this time Jews can lean on themselves. The writer is a veteran essayist, author and translator. His column is published in collaboration with The New York Sun.