Israel, Iraq, and the Palestinians - As the U.S. Moves Toward War (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS) Ze´ev Schiff JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF Vol. 2, No. 9 10/21/02)
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* Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon realized in 1991
that if Jordan were Palestine, Iraqi forces could be deployed very
close to Israel´s border.
* A number of Israeli leaders felt that Israeli deterrence was
damaged by the policy of restraint in 1991. If Israel did not react
to the use of gas or chemical weapons against it, then the lessons of
the Holocaust would be meaningless.
* Israel need not respond only in western Iraq. There are hundreds of
strategic targets in Iraq.
* After the war in Afghanistan, al Qaeda members took refuge in Saudi
Arabia and Yemen, while quite a few went to the Ein Hilwe refugee
camp in Lebanon via Syria.
* Al Qaeda members reached Iraq as well. Palestinians who trained at
the al Quds camp north of Baghdad reported seeing a number of al
Confrontation with Iraq
History in the Middle East often repeats itself. Back in 1991, during
the first intifada, we wondered if the Palestinians would try to take
advantage of the situation in the Gulf. Now we are quite aware that
this might happen again. The first intifada actually ended because of
the outcome of the Gulf War, and because of the American decision to
take the parties into the Madrid Conference. We are facing almost a
similar situation nowadays.
There are also a number of important differences between the 1991
Gulf War and today: Many people say that because Ariel Sharon is
prime minister, Israel´s response will be very tough in response to
an Iraqi attack. The prime minister of Israel in 1991 was Yitzhak
Shamir, known for his hard-line approach to security, yet Shamir
objected very strongly to any independent Israeli military operation
against Iraq in 1991. Even when Iraqi missiles with conventional
warheads hit Israel, he insisted that Israel did not have to
intervene. Defense Minister Moshe Arens sided with those in the
Israeli army, and the air force in particular, who proposed an
Israeli military strike against Iraq. Israeli Chief of Staff Gen. Dan
Shomron thought completely differently from Arens, and I believe he
was the one who swayed Shamir´s thinking to refrain from attacking
Israel´s current defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was born in
Iraq, in Basra. The current chief of staff, Gen. Moshe Ayalon,
regards Palestinian terror rather than Iraq as the main threat to
Israel today. On the other hand, he believes that Israel can cope
well enough with the Iraqi threat today. He does not minimize the
threat, but believes it can be handled successfully without a need to
initiate or act independently.
Since 1991 there has been a significant change in Ariel Sharon´s
attitude toward the Kingdom of Jordan. In the past, Sharon´s
conception was that "Jordan is Palestine," namely, that the
territorial solution to the Palestinian problem lies in Jordan more
than in the West Bank. Today he no longer uses that formula. The
Jordanian regime has assumed a greater importance for Sharon since
the Gulf War, when he and Prime Minister Shamir realized that if
Jordan was Palestine, Iraqi forces could be deployed very close to
A Policy of Caution
Israel is not looking for a military confrontation with Iraq.
Israel´s government supports the American approach and is not looking
for a direct confrontation with the Iraqis. Nor does Israel desire to
disrupt the operational plans of the United States.
In 1991, Shamir was convinced that Israel had to avoid being accused
of disrupting the Arab coalition that the United States had assembled
to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Today there really isn´t any
coalition. There are certain understandings between the United States
and a number of Arab countries, including Egypt. Israel must handle
the situation with proper caution in the next few weeks in order to
avoid a trap set by Iraq and its allies, especially the Palestinians
who would goad Israel into a large-scale military action and thereby
disrupt U.S. operational plans against Iraq.
Israel has been very careful in reaction to Hizballah´s escalation in
Lebanon with the Wazzani River water diversion. Israel is quite
concerned that the water grab may be a negative precedent along other
borders in the future. Yet Israel has been very careful not to fall
into the Hizballah trap. For example, the minister of defense has not
visited the region in order not to raise tension there.
When it came to Israel´s furious reaction to the suicide bomber on a
Tel Aviv bus on September 19, the decision-making process was not as
controlled as it was regarding Lebanon. The Israeli decision to move
on the Muqata, Arafat´s headquarters, was a bad compromise. There
were other alternatives. One was the expulsion of Arafat; it didn´t
happen. Another was to go into Gaza. Indeed, many diplomats
asked: "Why go to Ramallah and not against the Hamas?" or "Why not go
after the Islamic Jihad and those who claimed responsibility for the
bus bombing?" I personally am very much against a ground military
move in the Gaza Strip, which could be very tough, abrasive, and
result in many casualties.
This is not the end of the debate over expelling Arafat. The decision
was made to besiege him once again, to try and take out the wanted
men, and to begin the destruction of his headquarters. Anger was
leading the decision-making. It was clear that the Americans would
not like it. Keep in mind that the Americans supported Operation
Defensive Shield and the following operation which actually brought
about the reoccupation of the West Bank. The U.S. didn´t criticize
The Question of Deterrence
One important factor that would seriously influence Israel´s decision
if attacked by Iraq is the question of deterrence. From Israel´s
point of view, the way the Gulf War ended in 1991 was unprecedented
in many respects, especially if viewed against the backdrop of the
country´s military history. This was the first time that Israel did
not react to repeated violent attacks. It has always been an accepted
concept in Israeli strategic thinking that in the Middle East,
inaction in the face of attacks only invites more attacks. Silence
will always be interpreted by the aggressor as a sign of weakness.
Restraint is not viewed as a mark of strength.
The end of the Gulf War gave rise to a debate on the damage done to
Israeli deterrence by the decision not to respond, even if it had
been the correct decision. Defense Minister Arens and former
president of Israel and former air force commander Ezer Weizman
claimed that Israel´s deterrence had been shattered. When the war
ended, the Israeli Air Force promptly performed a fly-over of western
Iraq (the Americans became very nervous), to send a signal that "we
are here" and "we made a mistake by not attacking you for many
reasons, but we are around."
Today, the feeling is that restraint after another Iraqi strike would
be a serious mistake. Restraint is perceived as inviting more
attacks, not just by Iraqis but by others as well. The nature of
Israel´s response is not automatic, and Israel´s decision-making will
depend upon the type of weapons used against Israel (Iraq has
employed chemical weapons twice in the past), the number of
casualties and type of damage, and the need to coordinate with the
I see no likelihood that Israel would not react to the use of
unconventional weapons against it. Israel will not wait for other
governments to condemn Iraq or for others to take action on Israel´s
behalf. If Israel does not react to the use of chemical weapons
against it, then the lessons of the Holocaust would be meaningless.
In this matter, Israel needs to be absolutely firm.
I doubt that Israel would automatically exercise military retaliation
in response to an attack by missiles with conventional warheads which
inflict little damage or drop into the sea, as happened in 1991.
However, if an attack by conventional weapons inflicts many
casualties and real damage, I would expect that Israel would
From an operational point of view, Israel need not respond only in
western Iraq, from where the Iraqis had launched missiles during the
Gulf War. There are hundreds of strategic targets in Iraq and we know
quite well what is going on there.
While the shortest flight path eastward toward Iraq would require
Israel to fly over Jordan, this is not the only route. In 1981,
Israel reached the Iraqi reactor by flying over a tiny part of
Jordanian territory and immediately penetrating into Saudi Arabia.
King Hussein was in Aqaba at the time and saw the planes, as did
other Jordanians. The king asked one of his officers to call the
Iraqis and tell them that he saw something strange - Israeli aircraft
taking off near Aqaba and flying east - and he wanted to draw this to
their attention. But the Jordanian officer was too slow in making the
call, and he was later fired by the king.
In case of a war, the Jordanian question becomes quite a delicate
matter that needs to be considered carefully by the government.
Saddam Hussein is able to operate in Jordan in various forms in
reaction to an American attack, and Israel cannot ignore the dangers
should Saddam try to undermine the Jordanian regime in one way or
another. They don´t necessarily have to use missiles or airplanes;
they can also use terrorists crossing the border from Jordan, and we
have to be ready for this.
In the event of an American campaign against Iraq, I expect the
Syrians to act very cautiously. Hizballah and the Palestinians may be
less restrained, however, and we have to be very careful how we
react. It is not just a question of being right, it´s a question of
Al Qaeda is Regrouping
Al Qaeda is regrouping in the region after the war in Afghanistan.
Its members have taken refuge in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and quite a
few reached the Ein Hilwe camp in Lebanon via Syria. A few al Qaeda
members have gone to the region of Kurdistan near the border of Iran,
not far from Halabja, where they tested chemical weapons. A few were
arrested by the Syrians, which may be part of the cooperation we hear
about between the Syrians and the Americans. There are some old
Syrian connections with al Qaeda: bin Laden´s wife, Nagwa, and one of
his sons, Omer, were in Syria.
A few al Qaeda members have reached Iraq as well, as we learned from
Palestinians who were arrested last month as they crossed the bridges
from Jordan to Israel. These Palestinians had received military
training in the al Quds training camp north of Baghdad, where they
reported seeing a number of al Qaeda people.
Prospects for Change
If the Americans win quickly, there is a chance for a different
Middle East (but not a "new Middle East"). I don´t believe we will
see a democratic Iraqi government emerge immediately afterwards, but
if there is any chance for the Middle East, the Iraqis have to be
integrated into the regional process. Iraq is an economic engine and
it is very important not only for Jordan but also for the Syrians and
the Egyptians. If there is to be a regional conference in the future,
the Iraqis should be there.
Recognizing that Iraq has a role to play in the future could help
bring the Palestinians back into the negotiating process. A regime
change in Iraq could also lead to pressure not just on the Syrians
but also on the Iranians to stop the flow of money and weaponry to
Hizballah, Islamic Jihad, and other groups. However, winning the war
against the current Iraqi regime is a precondition for these changes.
How Do We Define a Victory?
How do we define a victory? If Saddam remains in power after the war,
if the war is prolonged, if the Americans have to occupy parts of
Iraq and stay there too long, if there are many civilian casualties
or the Americans suffer many casualties, then that is not a victory.
A victory in Iraq means:
* Putting an end to the Iraqi unconventional weapons program;
* Destroying the group which runs the regime and their main security
apparatus – about 100 men;
* A short war that keeps Iraq as one unified state;
* Not destroying the Iraqi infrastructure completely because the
Iraqis will need it in the future.
Ze´ev Schiff is the military and strategic affairs editor of
Ha´aretz, and is the author of numerous books including A History of
the Israeli Army, Fedayeen, and October Earthquake and the Yom Kippur
War. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on the author´s presentation
to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 30
September 2002. (www.jcpa.org. © Copyright 10/21/02)
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