Iraq shifts US-Israeli equation

US pressure was central to Israel's decision to halt its siege of Arafat's compound this week.

Last April, as Israeli troops reoccupied Palestinian cities and laid siege to Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, President Bush and other US officials repeatedly demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdraw. He all but ignored them.

This past weekend, the US again insisted that Mr. Sharon had to end another siege of Arafat's offices. This time, the Israeli leader obeyed. His forces withdrew on Sunday.

The difference? Iraq.

As is clear to any reader of American newspapers, the US is focusing on Iraq with an almost obsessive intensity. Apparently the Israelis were late to catch on. "We [messed] up," says a senior Israeli government official, and overlooked the Bush administration's new emphasis on "getting the world united against Iraq."

When it became clear that Israel's actions were an impediment to this process, the official says, speaking on condition of anonymity, "The Americans said, 'Don't get us in trouble now, you people. We are your friends, now do as you're told.' "

This episode demonstrates that the administration can indeed engage itself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something it has been accused of avoiding since the beginning of the president's term. It also underscores Mr. Bush's determination to move ahead on Iraq.

Israel's withdrawal became urgent to the US, in part, because of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for it. The US is in the midst of assembling Security Council support for an effort to force Iraq's compliance with weapons inspections – it may have seemed awkward that a US ally was disregarding a UN demand.

The siege also grated on Arab sensibilities at a time when the US is trying to muster Arab support for a move against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps as a result of these factors, US pressure on Israel was more coordinated, more subtle, and more effective than it has been in the past. "It was a rather impressive operation," says a Western diplomatic source in Tel Aviv, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Americans first communicated their wishes privately, then ratcheted up the level of pressure to include public denunciations of Israel's actions and a message from Bush to Sharon. Most important, this time all of the US's diplomatic players were on the same page.

In April, Bush and the State Department issued demands for an Israeli pullback, but Vice President Dick Cheney and others sent more accommodating signals, creating the impression that the administration was divided on the issue.

Not so in the current episode. Sharon "presumably got the message that this is from everybody," says Joseph Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst who served as an adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Although Sharon is being criticized in the Israeli media for a massive fumble, Israel's larger interests are served in smoothing the way toward US or allied military action against Mr. Hussein.

"Israel does indeed want the US to deal with the strategic threat embodied in the Iraqi regime and its aims and its weapons development program," says Mr. Alpher.

"An Iraq that will toe the American line and that will not be interested in Iraqi hegemony in the Gulf is a very good idea," adds the senior Israeli official.

The American focus on Iraq may tamp down the violence between Israel and the Palestinians, since both sides will see the dangers of getting in the way of an angry elephant. "Until the war on Iraq begins and ends – and it won't be overnight – Israel's hands are tied," commentator Yoel Marcus wrote in yesterday's edition of Israel's Ha'aretz daily newspaper. "It can forget about big-time operations like conquering Gaza or deporting leaders.

"We won't be seeing Palestinian militants dancing on the rooftops either, from the look of things. Presumably, the [Palestinian Authority] also wants to get through [the period] on the side of the good guys."

"From here on in," Alpher says, "I assume our decisionmakers will be a bit more aware of the primacy of Iraq in US thinking."

But if the Israelis have been reined in, it may only be a temporary curtailment. Concludes the senior official: "In the absence of Iraq, we can do with the Palestinians what we will, within limits, of course."

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