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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE DAY THE WAR BEGAN: JANUARY 16, 1991 : THE RABBI

<i> Harvey J. Fields is senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and chair of the Middle East Commission of the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles</i>

The 1973 Yom Kippur War has been on my mind. Ten days after hostilities had ended, I toured the Sinai Desert. I saw the bombed-out carcasses of tanks and missile launchers; I saw thousands of gun casings and helmets still reeking with the stench of death. The general who accompanied us turned to me and said: “War is the worst human alternative. You never know what will happen, but there are times when it must be waged.”

Since the launch of Operation Desert Storm on Jan. 16, the news has been mostly of allied successes. But many Americans--perhaps especially American Jews--have felt the tight, uncomfortable clutch of uncertainty. That anxiety soared when Iraqi missiles struck Haifa and Tel Aviv. Saddam Hussein, of course, had boasted over and over again that he would strike Israel, that his “mother of all battles” included destruction of “the Zionist entity.”

As the battle to restore Kuwait’s independence continues and as the need to shield other Middle East nations from his aggressive vision persists, Hussein’s fanatical fixation on Israel should not be overlooked. It opens a window on what worries so many Israelis and others deeply concerned about achieving peace in the Middle East.

Repeatedly, as the Iraqi leader either paraded his “human shields” on television for the world to see or arrogantly refused to comply with the 12 U.N. resolutions that demanded he unconditionally withdraw his troops from Kuwait, he sought to label the Arab countries joined against him as “Zionist traitors” to the Arab cause.

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Israel and Zionism have long been targets for galvanizing Arab nationalism and unity. Since the invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, Hussein, like Egypt’s Gamal Shawki Abdel Nasser before him, has persistently sought to whip up Arab hostility toward Jews in order to deflect attention from his defiant dismemberment of Kuwait and its annexation as its 19th province.

Little wonder that Yasser Arafat immediately embraced Hussein’s plunder of Kuwait. Despite the fact that the Kuwait ruling family had loyally bankrolled his Palestine Liberation Organization and other Palestinian terrorist organizations, Arafat was quick to abandon old friends and to salute the “Butcher of Baghdad.”

Hussein’s belligerency suited Arafat’s militant aims against the Jewish State. Indeed, as Operation Desert Storm commenced, the PLO Chief accused “the United States-Israel-European Coalition” of “cowardly aggression” against Iraq.

Unfortunately, Palestinians living in Jordan and on the West Bank and in Gaza followed Arafat’s lead. On the day Hussein invaded Kuwait, the intifada , which had dramatically diminished in intensity the five months before, again flared into violence. Several Israeli citizens were knifed by Palestinian terrorists; indeed, many Israelis who had longed for progress toward a reasonable accommodation with the Palestinians were shocked by the support given to Hussein.

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They found themselves asking: How can we continue a dialogue with those who support the invasion and pillage of Kuwait, the man who gassed thousands of Kurds and now calls for “holy war” against the Jews?

The wedge of distrust between even those Palestinians and Israelis who were, just a few months ago, painfully inching their way toward reconciliation has dramatically strengthened.

Today, most Israelis remain wary, and so do most American Jews, about the future. And for good reason.

At the heart of the Israeli-Arab dispute is the refusal of all Arab states, with the exception of Egypt, to recognize Israel’s right to exist and to make peace with her. As long as Hussein and Arafat can stir up Arab unity under the banner of hatred and violence against Jews, there can be no security for Israel, no significant movement toward resolving the Palestinian problem.

Hopefully, Operation Desert Storm may resolve the future of Kuwait. It will surely defang Iraq of its military might and thereby end its threat to the stability of the Middle East. But a serious question remains:

Will the Bush Administration use its new stature with our Arab allies, principally Saudi Arabia and Syria, to persuade them to follow Egypt’s example in establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel, at last signaling the end of so much bloodshed and enmity?

Unless American leadership plays such a critical diplomatic role, exercises such pressure, the likes of Hussein will soon rise again.


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