JERUSALEM -- As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon consults with President Bush in Washington today on Middle East violence and Iraq, a muted debate is underway here over whether a U.S.-led war against Israel’s archenemy Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a good idea.
While it is widely assumed that Israelis are gloating over the prospect of Hussein getting his comeuppance after the Persian Gulf War, when 39 Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Israel, the reality is far more complex and the reactions more ambivalent.
No doubt Israelis more than almost anyone would prefer a Middle East without Hussein, but some question whether the status quo of a weakened and contained Iraq isn’t better than a war that could further inflame anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world.
And in recent weeks, some Israelis in the military and security establishment have cautiously questioned whether Hussein poses as immediate a threat as Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have warned.
“Saddam Hussein, a weakling as he is today, is in Israel’s interests,” said Aharon Levran, a brigadier general in Israel’s reserve army and author of a book about the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Levran, one of the more outspoken Israeli critics of Bush’s policy on Iraq, says Baghdad is no longer capable of anything more than a border skirmish.
“A war against Iraq will divert the United States from its clear-cut campaign against Islamic fanaticism,” Levran said. “And if it fails, we in Israel will pay the price.”
Opposition leader Yossi Sarid agreed. “Washington is far away. We live in the Middle East, and the consequences will be most immediate for us.”
Among hard-liners, there is resentment over the suggestion that Israel should rein in its campaign against Palestinian violence so as not to hinder the Bush administration’s efforts to win support from reluctant Arab governments for a campaign against Iraq.
During today’s meeting, Bush will ask Sharon to show restraint during this period of diplomatic sensitivity, administration officials said. In particular, he wants Sharon to stop focusing so intently on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whose headquarters was put under siege and largely demolished by the Israeli army last month.
“Let’s not make Arafat the issue. Let him depart into the sunset, as he now seems likely to do,” a State Department official said Tuesday. “Don’t try to push him off, which is only rallying more Palestinians around him.”
Sharon, in return, is expected to ask that the United States not use the occasion of an Iraq war to try to impose an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal for the sake of American diplomatic expedience.
Another major item on the agenda is the question of whether Israel would strike back if attacked by Iraq. Sharon has stated publicly that Israel has every intention of retaliating this time around, unlike in 1991, when Israel held back in deference to the U.S.
“A lot of our focus is how to make the possibility of Israeli retaliation moot,” a Bush administration official said Tuesday.
Despite Sharon’s assertion that the U.S. war on terrorism is part of the same campaign Israel is waging in the Palestinian territories, the United States has been unusually vocal in its criticism of Israel lately. Israel was rebuked over last week’s incursion into the Gaza Strip in which 17 Palestinians were killed. The U.S. ambassador to Israel delivered a sharply worded letter to Sharon on Friday asking that Israel ease conditions for the Palestinians.
“Until the day after the Iraqi campaign is over, we’re on a very short leash,” complained an Israeli lobbyist, who asked not to be quoted by name. “We are weaker, and the Arabs know it.”
Given the raucous nature of discourse in Israel, there has been relatively little public debate about Iraq.
There have been no noisy rallies either for or against a war. Sharon has issued a gag order on government officials, prohibiting them from talking publicly about Iraq.
In any case, those most enthusiastic about Washington’s campaign dread any suggestion that Israel is egging on the U.S. And those with misgivings are loath to say anything that might embarrass Israel’s most steadfast ally.
“The United States has supported us in our catastrophes,” Levran said, “so we have to support the United States in theirs.”
In recent weeks, however, several high-ranking Israeli military officers have voiced doubts about American and British assessments of the threat posed by Iraq and in particular how quickly Iraq could develop nuclear weapons.
“There is a difference between our assessment and that stated by the British,” military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash said in a recent interview with Israeli television. But he added that Israel does agree with assessments about Iraq’s continuing efforts to develop biological and chemical weapons.
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon also has said in recent interviews that Iraq’s offensive abilities have been reduced since the Gulf War.
“I don’t lose any sleep over Iraq,” Yaalon said at a recent meeting of the Industry and Commerce club in Tel Aviv.
Moshe Arens, defense minister during the Gulf War, concurred: “You might have the same Saddam Hussein on one side, a father and son both named Bush on the other, but this will not be a deja vu. Israel is in much better shape than it was in 1991, and Iraq’s abilities are very much diminished.”
Israeli military specialists have been debating for several years whether Iraq or Iran poses more of a threat. Most specialists believe it is Iran, because it is richer and has been more directly implicated in international terrorism.
“If you told Israeli leaders and analysts two years ago that the U.S. would be on the verge of attacking Iraq today, they would have been astonished and confused. The dominant perception across the political spectrum was that Iraq was not a serious threat,” analyst Barry Rubin wrote in a Jerusalem Post editorial last week headlined: “U.S. Attack on Iraq: Good for the Jews?”
Rubin cited three reasons why an attack would not be good for Israel: the danger of Iraq retaliating against Israel, the possibility of an anti-Israeli backlash in Europe and America if the war effort goes awry, and the likelihood that the U.S. would pressure Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians for the sake of coalition-building.
Nevertheless, he believes that most Israelis will be won over by Bush’s arguments. “This is U.S. policy. Everybody will support it, especially if it is successful,” he said.
There is no doubt that Israel would be delighted to see the last of Hussein. The Iraqi leader has been an unwavering archenemy of Israel’s, unleashing fierce rhetoric against the “Zionist entity,” as he calls it, in nearly every speech.
According to Israeli intelligence, Hussein also has been encouraging Palestinian terrorism by handing out $25,000 rewards to the families of suicide bombers.
Under the most optimistic of scenarios, Hussein would be removed from power and a friendly, pro-Western government would take his place in Iraq. That, some Israelis hope, would make Palestinians more receptive to Israeli demands and set the stage for more pliant Arab governments throughout the Middle East.
Critics say, however, that this is a fanciful scenario and that what is equally likely is an Arab world that is more committed to the destruction of Israel than ever. Sarid, the opposition leader, says a U.S. war against Iraq could destabilize moderate regimes in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states.
“Instead of one murderous Saddam, you’ll have two or three murderous Saddams, and we will be their target,” Sarid said.
Staff writers Robin Wright in Washington and Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.