Global Policy Forum

Israel Says War on Iraq Would Benefit the Region


By James Bennet

New York Times
February 27, 2003

Israelis once believed that the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians would usher in a new Middle East of comfortable Israeli-Arab coexistence.

With Oslo in tatters, the Israelis are now putting similar hopes in an American war on Iraq.

Other nations may cavil, but many in Israel are so certain of the rightness of a war on Iraq that officials are already thinking past that conflict to urge a continued, assertive American role in the Middle East.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week that after Iraq, the United States should generate "political, economic, diplomatic pressure" on Iran. "We have great interest in shaping the Middle East the day after" a war, he said.

It may seem paradoxical that the country most vulnerable to an Iraqi attack in case of war is most eager for that war to begin. But Israel's military intelligence apparatus has concluded that the chances of a successful Iraqi missile strike here during this war, while ever present, are small.

The Israeli government and military elite believe that Saddam Hussein seeks devastating weapons but has far less capacity for mayhem than he had during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when his forces fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel. The Israeli Army also believes that its own national defenses are much improved.

Israel regards Iran and Syria as greater threats and is hoping that once Saddam Hussein is dispensed with, the dominoes will start to tumble. According to this hope "or evolving strategy" moderates and reformers throughout the region would be encouraged to put new pressure on their own governments, not excepting the Palestine Authority of Yasir Arafat.

"The shock waves emerging from post-Saddam Baghdad could have wide-ranging effects in Tehran, Damascus, and in Ramallah," Efraim Halevy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national security adviser, said in a speech in Munich this month.

Until recently, Mr. Halevy was the chief of the Mossad, Israel's spy agency. He said, "We have hopes of greater stability, greater enhanced confidence from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic shores of Morocco."

Israelis have also suggested that that an Iraq war may salvage their economy and even prompt the opposition Labor Party to join Mr. Sharon's coalition in a new government of national unity.

Expressed in its broadest, vaguest terms, that theory has come in for the sort of mockery that the idealistic vision of Oslo's effects suffered from the right. The accusation is the same: fuzzy, wishful thinking.

Uzi Benziman, a journalist and author of a biography of Mr. Sharon, wrote in the newspaper Haaretz, "Israel is looking for Ares, the ancient Greek god of war, to play the part of the deus ex machina in this drama."

Referring to this "almost pagan faith," he continued, "It's still hard to shake the feeling that what the fervency of Israeli expectations regarding the war really attests to is despair." Opinion polls here have shown a strong though not overwhelming majority in favor of war.

The precise mechanism for converting a war into regional stability has not been detailed.

Mark Heller, a senior researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the potential engine for change would be the example of a transformed Iraq. "It's at least conceivable that Al Jazeera will end up showing pictures of Iraqis celebrating in the streets, in which case people in other places — like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are going to start saying, `If Iraqis deserve decent government, so do we.' " Al Jazeera is a widely watched Arab broadcast network.

Israeli officials say that only sustained American pressure can turn that hope into reality. Mr. Mofaz warned that without continued attention to the rest of the region, an Iraqi collapse could strengthen Iran.

As they look ahead to the aftermath of an Iraq war, Israeli officials are also considering how the Bush administration's present diplomatic struggle could help or hurt them. A top Israeli official predicted that after such a war would come a fork in the road for American policy and "a battle for the heart and mind" of President Bush.

The official said the Bush administration might try to mend relations with Arab and European nations by wringing concessions from Israel toward the Palestinians.

But he said it was more likely that rising American frustration with Europe would benefit Israel. Mr. Sharon has been alarmed by the recent efforts of the so-called quartet "the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia" to intervene in the conflict here. Mr. Sharon would much prefer to deal only with the United States.

The top Israeli official said the quartet might prove a "casualty" of an Iraqi war. "The idea of using the quartet as the great instrument of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — there are people in Washington who are going to say, `What do we need these people for?' " he said.




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