A Question of Guts

The United States is about to be entangled in Afghanistan.

Gone is the idea that it is possible to vanquish the Taliban by aerial bombardment. Gone is the illusion that some tribal fighters, who were given the grandiose name of the "Northern Coalition", could put up a real fight, much as the Israelis lost the illusion that the Phalangists would really fight for them in Lebanon. Gone is the hope that local warlords would betray the Taliban and join the Americans.

The Taliban can rely on three formidable sources of strength: tough Afghan patriotism that has in the past beaten the British Empire and the Soviet superpower; extreme Islamic fanaticism; and the tribal loyalty of the Pashtun, the largest group in the country.

The very poverty of the mountainous country constitutes a forbidding obstacle to any invader. Afghanistan may turn out to be a second Vietnam. It may suck the American army in, causing it to sink into the morass of an exhausting war of attrition. The aim is too elusive, with no end in sight. And in the meantime Osama bin Laden - he or someone else of his kind - will exploit the growing sympathy for him in the Arab and Muslim world in order to commit more and more severe acts of terrorism in the vulnerable United States.

In this situation, America will need even more to attract to its side the Arab masses and to fortify the pro-American Arab regimes that are needed for the war-coalition. That means: putting an end to the Israeli occupation that poisons the region and settling, once and for all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Arial Sharon has already shown that he is determined to sabotage this process. He openly challenges the Bush administration and tells him: Let's see who'll blink first.

One could argue that this is direct help for the Taliban, spiking the wheels of the American war machine at a critical time. Sharon doesn't care. It is much more important for him to keep the settlements where he put them and to prevent the establishment of the Palestinian State Bush spoke about.

Thus the Bush-Sharon contest joins the Bush-Taliban one. But perhaps the decisive contest will take place in America itself: between Bush and the pro-Israel lobby.

This lobby is indeed a mighty force. It is enough to stay a few days in New-York and Washington to gain a healthy respect for its potency. Just as an illustration: last week I took part, as an Israeli peace-camp activist, in a press-conference arranged on Capitol Hill with the participation of members of Congress. The aim was to support the appeal by Israeli and American-Jewish peace organizations urging the US government to come forward with a resolute peace initiative for the Middle East, as a part of the war against terrorism. Dozens of Congressmen and Congresswomen had promised to attend, but in the end only four gave their support. The others were frightened off by the lobby.

When I got to the place, I was astounded by the number of reporters who were there. A battery of TV cameras was focused on the podium, the representatives of some of the most important media had come, too. The press conference itself was not enough for them, they stood around for a long time afterwards, asking me questions.

The same thing happened the next day. At the Press Club, journalists from almost all the important American newspapers and newspaper-chains came and questioned me at length about our analyses and proposals.

What of all of this appeared in the media? You have guessed right: not a single word. The lobby has frightened the glorious, free American media, notwithstanding the fact that the subject concerns the basic national interest of their country at this critical juncture.

That is Bush's real test: Does he have the guts to fight Sharon and his supporters in the Congress and the media?

When I visited the State Department on the same day, I foun,d that people there were skeptical. They all understood where the essential interest of the United States lie, but not all were convinced that Collin Powell's determined attitude would win the day.

If Bush remains steadfast, he will perceive that all over the United states new Jewish peace groups have sprung up to challenge the lobby, demanding an American peace initiative. The voice of the Israeli peace movement is also attracting attention.

But at the end of the day, there remains a simple question: Is there enough political courage in Washington for the start of a peace initiative that will serve the national interests of the United States, as well as the real interests of Israel and Palestine?


Uri Avnery is a writer and former member of the Israeli Knesset.

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