ATHENS — Despite violence between the Israeli government and Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, sober analysts of the Middle East still bet against a wider Arab-Israeli war.
Faced with growing popular Arab and Islamic anger, governments hold back. Some are fearful of breaking their peace treaties with Israel (Egypt, Jordan). Some may feel militarily too weak (Syria) or are too involved with Israel's main ally, the United States, in oil, investment, and business (Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf neighbors). Or they are avowed adversaries of Israel, but too distant geographically to fight (Iran, Pakistan).
Nevertheless, a small war danger is getting bigger, day by day. There are two possible, perilous roads leading toward it. Both involve Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. He repeatedly proclaims his defiance of the United States, and his intention to "liberate Jerusalem" with a military force of Iraqi divisions he says are now being trained, armed, and equipped (ignoring, of course, the collapsing embargoes imposed by the US and the UN).
All President Hussein asks is that neighbors Jordan and Syria allow Iraqi legions to use their territory to attack Israel. (Syria has now reconciled with Hussein, and is a willing outlet forIraqi oil exports.)
In two possible scenarios, Hussein might see opportunity and try to seize it, unless he is quickly and effectively restrained - which he wasn't when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.
One war scenario lies in the recent promise by the chief of the Hizbullah guerrilla movement in Lebanon that his troops must prepare to join the Palestinian struggle "at the opportune moment."
The Israeli government has threatened that it would settle scores with Hizbullah - and its Lebanese hosts and Syrian helpers - with a vigorous response to any new Hizbullah operations. This would involve hitting the Syrian military in Lebanon, and perhaps in Syria itself. In the latter case, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might find it difficult to refuse Hussein's probable offer of Iraqi troops to the rescue.
Result: a war, probably brief but certainly bloody, and stoppable only by much stronger US action than the Bush administration has shown any inclination to take so far.
A second war scenario, far less likely, is euphemistically called "transfer" by the Israelis. Ever since Theodore Herzl, the ideological father of Israel as a Jewish homeland, wrote in his diary in 1895 that the "only way" to have an ethnically pure Jewish state would be to forcefully "transfer" to Jordan all Arabs living there, some extreme Zionist theorists have advocated this. As one of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's senior advisers, Rehovam Ze'evi, once argued, it means expulsion to Jordan of some of the Palestinians, including populations of the West Bank, if not Gaza - even Arabs living in pre-1967 Israel. For Jordan, this would spell destruction of its parliamentary monarchy and realization of the old Israeli rightist slogan, "Jordan is Palestine."
King Abdullah of Jordan is aware that the idea - which Ariel Sharon, as an Army colonel, once suggested to his staff in 1964 - has never totally vanished from Israeli screens. (However, according to biographer Shabtai Tevet, Israeli founding father David Ben Gurion vetoed the idea in 1948.) As prime minister, Sharon has not advocated it, either.
Last May, Jordan's interior minister acted to block any new tide of Palestinian refugees arriving into the kingdom, half of whose 4 million-plus people are already Palestinian, by imposingnew restrictions on their entry. In a private talk with Abdullah's late father, King Hussein - in 1991, three years before he signed peace with Israel - he told this reporter that if a huge new refugee tide appeared, forced by the Israelis, the Jordanian Army would have to resist by force.
No Iraqi leader since 1948 has been willing to sign a peace accord or even a ceasefire with Israel. All have battled the Jewish state. President Hussein would jump at a chance to move his armies into Jordan to "defend Arabism." And since every Israeli leader since 1948 has regarded and acted on such Iraqi moves as a strategic threat, the result could again be war.
Such scenarios compel the burning of midnight oil in the Israeli, American, and Arab capitals to plan prevention. Most especially, they should oblige the Arab and Israeli communities in conflict to aim at peacefully ending what has now been the longest military occupation of a subject people in our time.
John Cooley, author and former Monitor correspondent, has covered war and peace in the Mideast and North Africa since the late 1950s. He now reports for ABC News.