THE world learnt this week that earlier this month more than 100 Israeli air force planes took part in a major military exercise that officials at the Pentagon in Washington said yesterday appeared to be a rehearsal for a possible bombing attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The exercise, which was not made public at the time, must have taken place when Israel was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its statehood and, by an eerie coincidence, at the same time of the year that Israel launched an air attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

Twenty-seven years ago President Reagan claimed that he was “surprised” to learn of the raid and the United States confined its response to complaining that the planes used had been supplied for defensive purposes only and to vetoing a United Nations resolution condemning the raid.

If history is to be repeated with variations President Bush will not be able to feign ignorance - indeed, given the threats he has made, it would be widely thought that Israel was acting with his full support. The question is what the rest of the world can do to stop such folly.

Forewarned is forearmed - and America and Israel should be told by all their friends that they would be completely isolated if an unprovoked bombing raid were to be mounted. Common sense suggests that no departing president would bequeath his successor with the turmoil that would follow such an attack on Iran - but common sense or restraint are not qualities for which George W Bush is known.