In Israel's Interest? Not Necessarily

Gershom Gorenberg

In Israel's Interest? Not Necessarily

By Gershom Gorenberg
(editor & reporter for Jerusalem Report)

American Prospect 10.21.02

More than 15,000 Israelis lined up on a single day to get new government-issue gas masks, the daily newspaper Ha'aretz reported Sept. 18. On the same page: Israel's Defense Ministry was seeking an advance on next year's budget to speed gas-mask production, inoculation of hospital staffers for smallpox was about to begin and Interior Minister Eli Yishai was preparing a special budget request to boost firefighters' readiness to deal with a large-scale attack — a necessity, he said, given the tension with Iraq.

No one doubts that Israel will face serious risks the moment that President George W. Bush orders an American offensive against Iraq. Memories remain fresh of Iraqi Scuds falling on Tel Aviv and Haifa during the 1991 Gulf War. American foreign-policy experts suggest that this time around, facing his end, Saddam Hussein might use any capability he has to strike Israel with chemical or biological weapons.

Nonetheless, conventional wisdom in the United States, Israel and elsewhere is that Bush's plans for "regime change" in Iraq serve Israeli interests at least as much as U.S. ones. That assumption has boosted support for President Bush's Iraq policy among American Jews and among pro-Israel American politicians. Even Israel's once-dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has lobbied for war, his vision of a peaceful "New Middle East" apparently stashed in his archives alongside his youth movement diaries. The long-term danger to Israel of Hussein with nuclear arms, says the standard reasoning, far outweighs any risks posed by war.

The debate on Bush's war plans, however, is not about whether Iraq should have the bomb. At best, it's about a particular policy for preventing that development. The policy includes war, the way the Bush administration has prepared for war, its fuzzy plans for what to do after the war and the doctrine it posits to justify war. From where I sit — in Jerusalem, on the slopes of a hill that looks out over the occupied West Bank and the mountains of Jordan in the haze beyond — each piece of that policy deserves questioning. In the end, the Bush policy may well create greater dangers for Israel than those it claims to eliminate.

Despite Bush's belated turn to the United Nations, his administration has prepared for war virtually unilaterally, expecting other nations to line up behind it. In the Middle East, the United States has done nothing to build a foundation for a wide coalition, reduce regional tensions or minimize war damage to American allies — Israel included.

To the contrary, Bush and Co. have withdrawn from any effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president's June 24 Mideast policy speech postponed a final-status settlement for three years. Since then, the administration has stayed awol from diplomacy and given Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government a free hand to continue reoccupying the West Bank.

Bush has thereby satisfied Sharon, but winning Sharon's support does not prove that Bush's Iraq strategy is good for Israel any more than the president's choice of a strategy should end discussion of whether it is good for America.

In fact, it's hard to see how Israel's interests are served by the United States attacking an Arab state while the conflict with the Palestinians continues to burn. In Arab eyes, argues Akiva Eldar, the prominent diplomatic analyst for Ha'aretz, the effect of Bush's Mideast policy even before a U.S. attack on Iraq has been to show that "Israel does what it wants, and the U.S. doesn't interfere."

At the same time, Arabs see the United States "ignoring Israel's nuclear capability," Eldar says, and hear that Middle Eastern men will be singled out for fingerprinting when visiting America. For the Arab on the street, the impression is that the United States is at war with the Muslim world, with Israel as its ally — a perception that damages America's ability to act as an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"It goes without saying," Eldar argues, that the outbreak of war will shake moderate Arab regimes. Israel — near at hand, more vulnerable than America — is the obvious lightning rod for anti-American anger. Egypt and Jordan could freeze relations with Israel and drop efforts to push the Palestinians toward peace. Saudi Arabia, which just last March put forward a peace initiative that included collective Arab recognition of Israel, could switch directions. If moderate Arab regimes collapse under the strain, the price for Israel will be even higher.

Though no Arab state is likely to attack Israel militarily, the Lebanese Hezbollah organization might do so as a Syrian proxy, pulling Israel into fighting on its northern front. Palestinian terrorist groups will also have high motivation to attack, as a way of striking both at Israel and the United States. Exploiting the "festive opportunity" of war in Iraq, says Menachem Klein, an expert on Palestinian politics at Bar-Ilan University, Sharon could decide it's time to "take care" of the Palestinians via a major operation in the Gaza Strip or the outright expulsion of Yasir Arafat.

As the Israeli operation in Ramallah in late September showed, that remains Sharon's goal. But, Klein stresses, Arafat's exit would not in the least reduce popular Palestinian commitment to achieving independence in the West Bank and Gaza. The impact of war in Iraq could be to escalate conflict with the Palestinians, to destabilize Israel's immediate neighborhood and to lose a generation's painful movement toward peace.

What's more, says political sociologist Lev Grinberg, head of the Hubert Humphrey Institute for Social Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, an American victory could spark "desire throughout the Arab world for revenge," as in Germany after World War I or in Egypt and Syria after the Six Day War. "Israel will be the address for that frustration," he says.

Another crucial question is what Iraq itself will do under attack. Before the Gulf War, a grim Israeli joke asked, "What do Baghdad and Hiroshima have in common?" The answer: "Nothing, yet." It remains unclear whether Hussein's military was incapable in 1991 of using chemical weapons against Israel, or whether it indeed held back for fear of Israeli retribution. Nor is it clear what weapons Iraq has today. "I'm not sure that Iraq's reason for preparing what it's assumed to be preparing is offensive. They may intend it as a deterrent," Grinberg tells me in a sidewalk cafe on a deceptively calm day in Jerusalem. "But if they have it and they're attacked, they'll use it. And we" — in contrast with the United States — "are in the Mideast."

Then there's the blank space on the page where Bush's postwar plans should be. If the United States succeeds in installing a new regime, Klein points out, "Who's to say that the new regime won't seek nonconventional weapons?" It will still have a dangerous Iran on one side, a rival Syria on the other and Israel just over the horizon — all of which are presumed to have or seek weapons of mass destruction.

The answer, supposedly, is that America will repeat what it did in Japan and Germany after World War II, creating a democratic and defanged government. That's likely to require a long occupation. Even if Iraqis initially greet Americans as liberators from Hussein, will the welcome last? The United States could find itself reliving Israel's attempt to create a new regime in Lebanon in 1982. Israel's local ally, the Christian Phalange, used Israel's presence to carry out a massacre and proved a fickle partner. In South Lebanon, Israel found itself in an unwinnable war against local guerrillas. Its eventual withdrawal years later only damaged its image of overwhelming strength, which remains essential to deterring Arab attacks.

In Iraq — like Lebanon, a colonial creation lacking cohesion — the United States could quickly be seen as an outside occupier, a target for local groups with sundry goals. If it stays, it could face guerrilla war, a trap for conventional armies. If it is forced to pull out, America will seem weaker, not stronger, than before. That's bad for the United States; it's worse for Israel, which leans on American power and will remain in the Mideast.

For Israel, there's also long-term risk in the doctrine of preemption that Bush laid out in his June 1 speech at West Point. Rather than requiring a clear and immediate danger to justify preemptive attack, the president has asserted that it's enough if a potential enemy is taking steps that could pose a threat down the road.

Once acted on, that principle will no longer be exclusive U.S. property; it will be cited by every government that seeks to justify attacking a rival state. The Bush doctrine is particularly dangerous in the unstable Mideast. It could embolden a hard-line Israeli leader — or an Arab leader who will point to Israel's presumed nonconventional arsenal — to embark upon a war.

Bush claims to be driving where Israel wants to go, but he may be driving at high speed with his eyes shut. American Jewish activists and pro-Israel politicians could serve their cause far better if they were to demand that the administration slow down and answer questions. How clear is the evidence that Hussein is close to having nuclear arms? Is there no way to stop him short of military action? Is the only military option "regime change," rather than attacking specific facilities? And if regime change, how does Bush intend to accomplish it?

Rather than pushing aside Iraq's agreement to inspection as a delaying tactic, why shouldn't the administration exploit the opportunity? A delay would allow the United States to begin intensive diplomatic efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Whatever Hussein's intent, the administration could gain international support for more aggressive inspection and disarmament moves than in the past. Rather than focus on Iraq alone, it could launch an initiative for regional arms-control talks, giving greater legitimacy to the demand for disarmament. And in the long-term, diplomacy is essential to slowing the Mideast arms race.

Those moves don't fit the Bush administration's do-it-alone foreign policy. But from the vantage point of the Mideast, they might well serve both America and Israel better than a headlong rush into war.

Gershom Gorenberg Copyright © 2002 by The American Prospect, Inc.
Preferred Citation: Gershom Gorenberg, "In Israel's Interest?," The American Prospect vol. 13 no. 19, October 21, 2002. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to