Israel could live with a fractured, failed Iraq

Shlomo Avineri teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

MOST ISRAELIS supported the removal of Saddam Hussein. The prewar intelligence debate in the United States over whether Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2003 doesn’t excite them. Twice in the 1990s they donned gas masks in preparation for an attack from Iraq.

What they know is that, in the 1980s, Iraq tried to develop nuclear weapons, that Hussein used poison gas against Iraqi Kurds and Iran -- and that he hinted darkly about using it against Israel. To Israelis, Hussein looked a lot like Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Consequently, the French diplomatic minuets at the U.N. Security Council before the Iraq war didn’t impress Israelis. After all, were not the French strong advocates of appeasement in the 1930s and then, under Vichy, Nazi collaborators?

So Hussein’s ouster removed a clear and present danger to Israel -- and made it highly improbable that an eastern front of Iraq and Syria would form to threaten the country.

Yet when it comes to the Bush administration’s messianic faith in the transformative power of democracy in Iraq -- and the Arab world in general -- most Israelis are skeptical.


In the last 20 years, democratization has swept through Eastern Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia. The results have been uneven: Russia is not Poland, Belarus is not Estonia. But the spread of democracy has largely skipped the Arab world. There has been no Arab Lech Walesa, no Arab Solidarity movement.

Many Israelis do not believe that Islam is the cause of the Arab democratic deficit. After all, Turkey is an example of a Muslim-majority country slowly, steadily working through democratization. Indonesia and Bangladesh are others. Iran increasingly exhibits a vibrant civil society, and though its clerics exercise a stern hand, presidential and parliamentary elections are contested. The democratic deficit is an Arab phenomenon.

Democracy in Iraq thus looks foreign not only because U.S.-led forces occupy the country but also because there is no legitimate Arab model for it.

There is another reason for skepticism. In the 1920s, the British stitched together three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire to form Iraq. Political power was vested in the hands of the Sunni Arabs, who never made up more than 20% of the overall population of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. The history of Iraq has been the story of Sunni Arab hegemony underpinned by the oppression of the other communities.


In today’s Iraq, some defeated Sunni Arabs are fighting a brutal insurrection to reclaim their hegemony. In doing so, they aim to thwart all efforts to create a viable political structure in which Sunnis are not dominant.

The Dec. 15 elections will not change this. Nor will they change the determination of both Kurds and Shiites not to again be subjugated by the Sunnis. In truth, the elections are not a contest among political parties with platforms. Instead, they are a contest of ethnicities, and the votes will fall along those lines. As such, the elections are unlikely to end the insurrection.

Is Israel worried about all this? Yes and no. Certainly it doesn’t want to see failure in Iraq weakening U.S. power and prestige. But an Iraq split into three semi-autonomous mini-states, or an Iraq in civil war, means that the kind of threat posed by Hussein -- an extremist nationalist dictator striving for WMD -- is unlikely to rise again.

The question is, how long will it take the U.S. to realize that Western-style democracy cannot be imported or imposed -- and at what price will this realization come about?