Israel Hears Lebanese Echoes In American Occupation Woes


By Ofer Shelah; With Reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — Stung by accusations that his agency botched its pre-war Iraqi threat assessments, Israel’s military intelligence chief insisted this week that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were real and would eventually be found.

“We have verified intelligence,” the spy chief, Major General Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, told the daily Yediot Aharonot in an April 11 holiday interview. “I’m speaking about tens of launchers, tens of missiles and several chemical and biological warheads. Either they hid them or they moved them somewhere. In the end they’ll turn up.”

Ze’evi admitted he was speaking out of pique, wounded by a scathing Knesset intelligence review last month. But his words had an uncomfortable ring. Like most Israelis in or out of uniform, he ardently supported the American invasion last year because of Iraq’s very real threat to Israel and, it was commonly assumed, to the West. Even the liberal daily Ha’aretz saluted the American invasion last month in an editorial on the war’s first anniversary.

Now, with the American occupation in trouble and anti-war sentiment rising in the United States, Israelis are deeply alarmed — but uncertain how to proceed.

“We are crossing our fingers for the Americans in Iraq,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Yediot last week. “Their success is vital for world peace.”

Last year, on the eve of the war, Israel was a quiet but enthusiastic supporter of America’s war plans. Saddam Hussein’s military power, it was universally agreed, made him one of the Jewish state’s most dangerous adversaries. He had sent troops to fight in almost every war against Israel, and had fired nearly 40 Scud missiles at it during the 1991 Gulf War. His overthrow was seen as eliminating Israel’s most serious existential threat, undercutting support for radicals and opening the way for a new relationship with the Palestinians.

Despite the strong feelings here, official spokesmen took care in the months before last year’s invasion to keep a low profile, fearing that aggressive advocacy would fuel accusations that Israel or its Jewish allies were pushing America into war for Israel’s benefit.

Nonetheless, top government and military figures did not hide their view that the war presented a unique chance to change the face of the Middle East. Many predicted it would bring about the end of the intifada, dashing the hopes of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat that the Arab world would rise to support him. They also spoke of a chance for positive changes in the relationships between Israel and hostile countries such as Syria or Iran, once the American superpower literally knocks at their door.

The army’s intelligence branch eagerly cooperated with American and British agencies, sharing information on Iraqi capabilities and intentions. Sources here deny that Israel supplied biased information, but it plainly saw the possibility of overthrowing Saddam as highly beneficial — and its intelligence collaboration was meant to help the American action.

Recent investigations, including the controversial report by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, indicate that the intelligence-sharing created a negative feedback effect: Information that Israel gave to Western agencies was then passed back to the Israeli intelligence community, ostensibly proving the initial report to be true.

When the war began, the nation’s political and military brass showed ill-disguised feelings of elation. Isolated contrarians in the press and the left-wing opposition were hardly noticed. Anti-war demonstrations in America and Europe were largely ignored in the face of what was expected to be a swift and certain victory. Popular opposition to the war in most European countries was seen as another sign of the old continent’s weakness and bias toward Arabs.

A year later, watching events deteriorate, Israelis are doubly frustrated. Never having heard the arguments against the war, most were unprepared for the possibility of failure. Indeed, whatever analyses may yet emerge from Washington or other capitals, Israel clearly did benefit from the removal of Saddam as a military force on the eastern front. That factor alone has substantially eased Israel’s defensive posture. Assessments of Israel’s situation in the event of an American withdrawal are almost universally bleak.

But because Israel uniquely benefited from a war that is increasingly controversial in America and around the world, fears of speaking out have grown even stronger than they were before the war.

Mofaz convened a meeting of defense chiefs a month ago to examine the worsening American position in Iraq and consider the consequences for Israel if this deterioration continues. Participants reportedly pointed to the possibility of Shi’ite radicals turning the country into an ally of neighboring Iran. Increased terrorist activity by Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad was predicted. Moderate countries such as Egypt and Jordan would be forced to distance themselves from a weakened Washington.

Operationally, an American failure to establish a friendly regime in Baghdad would force Israel to reconsider defense cuts on its eastern front, where large tank forces previously positioned for a possible Syrian-Iraqi invasion had been scaled down over the last year. That would require increases in defense spending, which has been cut over the past year as part of an austerity budget.

The defense minister, whose views usually echo those of the prime minister, laid out the scenario with unexpected bluntness in his Yediot interview last week.

“If the Americans manage to control the situation in Iraq, which Israel is convinced they will, it will have a positive impact on the whole Middle East, the oil market and the international community’s authority,” Mofaz said.

On the other hand, “if the Americans are forced to withdraw from Iraq as a result of terrorist pressures, a new and dangerous Arab regime will seize power. The axis of evil will lift its head again and threaten world peace.”

Magnifying Israeli discomfort is the awkward parallel between America’s troubles in Iraq and Israel’s own 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which led to a two-decade quagmire and ended in unilateral withdrawal.

Like America in Iraq, Israel in Lebanon — led by none other than then-defense minister and current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — presumed to do much more than conquer territory. It tried to create a new order and install a friendly leadership, betting on Christian factions with which it had close ties. But the ambitious plan quickly drowned in a sea of blood and chaos. Along the Israeli border, Shi’ite forces seized power under the radical Hezbollah organization, which began by harassing Israeli troops and ultimately became a global terrorist threat.

Sharon studiously steered away from the subject of Iraq in recent media interviews he granted in advance of this week’s visit to Washington to discuss his disengagement plan. It seems unlikely that even if the subject came up in his meetings with the President, he would offer anything but support. Still, the very presence of Sharon, who had to leave his office as defense minister as a result of the Lebanon war, could serve as a grim reminder to his host of what might happen should a controversial war go wrong.

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