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Israelis Fear Another Loss After Victory : Mideast: They recall a string of battlefield successes blemished by political setbacks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After past wars in which Israel took part, strong beliefs arose here that in key instances, battlefield victories were blemished by political defeats once the shooting stopped.

A feeling that this could happen again has arisen in the wake of cessation of hostilities in the Gulf War, in which Israel participated only as a target for Iraqi Scud missile attacks. Because Israel figures to play a prominent role in postwar diplomatic maneuvering, concern is growing that the country might come out a loser--that the allied victory will somehow be cemented at Israel’s expense, especially through pressure on Israel to give up occupied land to the Palestinians.

Israeli observers also voiced fear that Iraq may somehow arise from the ashes and threaten it again or that the Gulf War might spark wide Arab unrest that could lead to redoubled hostility to the Jewish state.

“The dangers today aren’t from the Iraqi war machine but from fear that the allied military victory will not be translated into a broad political achievement,” declared Zeev Schiff, an influential defense analyst.

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Added Danny Rubinstein, writing in the Haaretz newspaper: “You do not have to be a great strategist to know that victory or defeat in war is a very flexible concept. All agree that the political arrangements at the end of the war are what determine its results.”

Israeli officials expect U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III to unveil his ideas for postwar settlements during his first visit to Israel, expected this week. Because of a two-year history of friction with the Bush Administration, Baker’s visit is viewed with foreboding.

Washington and the rightist government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir have clashed repeatedly over plans for peace talks in the Middle East, and there is little indication that differences were erased with the U.S.-led victory in the Gulf.

Last year, Baker appealed to Israel to give up its “unrealistic vision” of holding onto the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Shamir says the land is--by historic right and strategic need--part of Israel.

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Exactly which political arrangements would be satisfactory to Israel is already the subject of intense discussion here. For Shamir, the best result would be that Arab countries come to terms with Israel’s existence and open diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.

“Israel has a great interest in the results of the war. We hope the liquidation of the tyranny in Iraq will bring about, God willing, an openness on the part of Arab states for peace with Israel,” he said in comments greeting the allied victory.

Shamir pointedly avoided any mention of the conflict with the Palestinians. His government fears that Israel will be pressed to give up its rule over the 1.7 million inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of a broad Middle East settlement.

Foreign Minister David Levy, in a recent interview, spoke of future talks with “residents” of the West Bank and Gaza but not if the talks were to be a step toward formation of a Palestinian state.

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Some commentators suggest that Israel’s choice in the matter may be limited and that Washington will press it into talks on an agenda that includes Palestinian political rights.

“It is still not clear whether, from Israel’s point of view, this war has ended for the best,” cautioned Alex Fishman, a columnist in the daily newspaper Hadashot. “Political circles in Jerusalem are concerned that Israel has ‘been done in.’ The next goal is an arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Israeli officials and observers frequently refer to any move by Washington in favor of the Palestinians as a payoff to Arab countries, be it in return for oil price stability, or in this case, the backing from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and other Arab states in the war against Iraq. Rarely is it suggested here that the Palestinian conflict deserves resolution on its own merits.

“I have a tough time understanding why the U.S. treats its Arab allies as though (the Arabs) are doing them a favor,” declared Yoel Marcus, a diplomatic correspondent for the Davar newspaper. “In simple terms, America saved these Arab states.

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“The U.S. now has the right to demand from the Arab states recognition of Israel and to reach peace agreements. The Palestinians aren’t the heart of the conflict,” he concluded.

In any event, the glum tone of many postwar commentaries reflects the Israeli view of past conflicts, all of which Israel nominally won only to find that its overall goals were frustrated.

Analyst Schiff recalled that in the euphoria that followed Israel’s swift victory in the 1967 Middle East War, one army general suggested that, given the beating Arab armies had taken, Israel could reduce its army to a pair of brigades. Instead, Arab armies rearmed and prepared for future conflicts.

In 1973, Israel was on the verge of wiping out an Egyptian army when the United States and the Soviet Union stepped in to call a halt to fighting, observers here recall. Israel eventually gave back the Sinai Peninsula that it had won from Egypt in 1967.

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In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the dual purpose of ousting the Palestine Liberation Organization from its guerrilla bases and establishing a friendly government in Beirut. Less than a decade later, the PLO is back in southern Lebanon, and Syria dominates the current rulers of that fractured country.

Political issues aside, a gloomy outlook on military matters is tempering the general satisfaction expressed here about the throttling of Iraq’s military machine.

Defense analysts wonder whether Iraq might not be able to rebuild its forces as quickly as was done by Arab armies in the wake of past defeats.

Because the Soviet Union intervened to try to promote a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait just before the land battle began, Israelis suspect that Moscow once again aspires to become a main military supplier for Baghdad. “The Iraqi market will be attractive,” said Dore Gold, a defense analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

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Also, frustration persists over the absorption by Israel of repeated Iraqi missile attacks. At the behest of Washington, Israel’s air force refrained from hitting back. “If someone were to have told us before the war that 40 Scuds were to fall on us without an Israeli response, we would have thought him crazy,” said columnist Marcus. “True, the Scuds weren’t significant from the military point of view, but uncovering our Achilles heel left a deep and heavy impression in our heart.”

Joseph Alpher, deputy director of the Jaffee Center, cautioned that Arab countries might view the policy as a sign of weakness, even though Israel’s restraint aided the allied effort by ensuring that the war was not turned into a general Arab-Israeli conflict. “The fact is, the Scuds were launched, and Israel did not respond. This could be mistaken for weakness,” he said.

With a view toward cashing in on its restraint policy, Israel officially requested last week that Iraq’s missile launchers and its stock of rockets and chemical weapons be destroyed as part of the final settlement of the Persian Gulf War.

Foreign Minister Levy sent letters to the United States and other Western allied governments asking that Iraq’s arsenal be subject to international inspection. He also demanded that all arms sales to Iraq be banned and that Baghdad be forced to promise never to attack Israel again--all this before American and allied troops agree to leave southern Iraq.

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A kind of nagging fear has emerged that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will emerge as a larger-than-life figure from the ruins of his country and return to haunt the Middle East. “If Saddam rules in Baghdad, his neighbors cannot be secure,” warned Schiff.

Conversely, Iraq’s humiliation on the battlefield is viewed by some as delivering a wrenching blow to Arab self-confidence. Even this holds dangers for Israel.

“We in Israel must remind ourselves that from now on, we will be confronting not only the Arab coalition of junior partners in the American victory, but a seething, choppy sea of Arabs, surging with inner doubts, seeking new heroes and symbols to identify with,” predicted Ehud Yaari, a military and intelligence expert for the Jerusalem Report magazine.

Yaari recalled that Israeli triumphs during its 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War “triggered powerful shock waves.”

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“One product of this inward turning,” he noted pessimistically, “was the emergence of radical trends in the Arab world.”


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