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Israel sees opportunity in possible US strike on Iraq

Israel promised support and assistance this week for a US war against Iraq.

By Ben LynfieldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2002



JERUSALEM

It echoes the hawks in the Bush administration, but Israel has its own agenda in backing a US attack on Iraq. As Egypt and other Arab allies issue vehement warnings to dissuade Washington, Israel's fear is that the US will back off.

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"If the Americans do not do this now," said Israeli Deputy Defense Minister and Labor Party member Weizman Shiry on Wednesday, "it will be harder to do it in the future. In a year or two, Saddam Hussein will be further along in developing weapons of mass destruction. It is a world interest, but especially an American interest to attack Iraq."

"And as deputy defense minister, I can tell you that the United States will receive any assistance it needs from Israel," he added.

Viewed through the eyes of Israel's hawkish leaders, however, a US strike is not about Iraq only. Decisionmakers believe it will strengthen Israel's hand on the Palestinian front and throughout the region. Deputy Interior Minister Gideon Ezra suggested this week that a US attack on Iraq will help Israel impose a new order, sans Arafat, in the Palestinian territories.

"The more aggressive the attack is, the more it will help Israel against the Palestinians. The understanding would be that what is good to do in Iraq, is also good for here," said Ezra. He said a US strike would "undoubtedly deal a psychological blow" to the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, is concerned that a US action would elicit Israeli echoes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "I'm afraid that with a government like Sharon's that is not restrained, the situations during a war might allow them to do more atrocities than now," says PA leader Ghassan Khatib. "This could mean more killing, more demolition of houses, more tightening of occupation." He added that some Palestinians are worried about an Israeli "transfer" (a forced removal of the Palestinian population.)

Israel, Iraq, and the Palestinians have had a complex relationship since the 1991 Gulf War, when Baghdad lobbed 39 Scud missiles into Israel. At least one Israeli was killed, and the strikes were believed to have contributed to dozens of fatal heart attacks. Some Palestinians in the West Bank cheered the strikes from their roofs.

In the view of Bar-Ilan University political scientist Menachem Klein, "it is too pessimistic to think that under cover of an attack on Iraq and in an atmosphere of Palestinian pro-Saddam demonstrations, Israel can transfer out the Palestinian population. What Israel can do is to expel Arafat and completely destroy the Palestinian Authority."

Yuval Steinitz, a Likud party member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, says he sees another advantage for Israel. The installation of a pro-American government in Iraq would help Israel vis-à-vis another enemy: Syria.

"After Iraq is taken by US troops and we see a new regime installed as in Afghanistan, and Iraqi bases become American bases, it will be very easy to pressure Syria to stop supporting terrorist organizations like Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad, to allow the Lebanese army to dismantle Hizbullah, and maybe to put an end to the Syrian occupation in Lebanon," he says. "If this happens we will really see a new Middle East."

"It might be enough not to invade Syria but just to have an American or UN blockade so that no one can ship weapons to it," Steinitz adds.

Mr. Ezra predicts a US strike would "calm down the entire region" by eliminating "the extremism of Saddam."

But some independent Israeli analysts fear things might work out differently. Dave Kimche, a former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said that while Iraqi nuclear weapons would pose a "mortal danger," an American attack's fallout on the region could harm Israel. "It could be very dangerous for Israel if Jordan were to collapse," he said of Israel's eastern neighbor, which signed a peace treaty in 1994 that is opposed by much of its population. An American strike might also harm Israel by "radicalizing the Palestinian street and weakening the more responsible elements," he said.

Israeli doves, preoccupied with the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, have thus far not made much noise about the government's stance toward an American strike against Iraq. But Zehava Galon, a liberal member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, says, "It is hard to understand the government's fervor. This is an American matter and not one we should be involving ourselves in. The Europeans are making clear there is no coalition, while we are pushing for a war. Beyond that, Israel is going to get hit if there is a war."

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