The countdown to the Iraq war was marked by grand pronouncements on the part of both its boosters and its detractors regarding its potential impact on Israel. Some backers of the war suggested that removing Saddam Hussein from power would have a transformative impact on the Middle East — helping pave the way for regime change in Damascus and Ramallah and a genuine peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. At the same time, some of the war’s more paranoid critics went so far as to suggest that the invasion of Iraq was foisted upon America by Bush administration neoconservatives specifically to advance Israeli interests.
One year after the American invasion, the war has indeed radically changed Israel’s strategic situation by reducing security threats on a number of fronts. Unfortunately, these benefits — some of which may prove to be ephemeral if not quickly acted upon — are not being fully exploited by Israel or the United States to create lasting progress toward peace.
The defeat and virtual disappearance of Iraq’s armed forces essentially has eliminated any near-term conventional military challenge to Israel for the first time in its 56-year history. America’s military performance in Iraq also enhanced American deterrence, and hence, indirectly, Israeli deterrence. Israel’s use of American military hardware and doctrine is understood by potential enemies who observed the conquest of Iraq as signaling Israeli military prowess.
Moreover, in recent months we appear to be witnessing some tentative beginnings of the positive regional “domino effect” predicted by the neocons in Washington as a potential benefit of the American occupation of Iraq. Libya’s dramatic renunciation of WMDs and its tentative contacts with Israel; Iran’s decision, however grudging, to cooperate more fully with the international community concerning its nuclear plans; Syria’s offer to renew peace negotiations with Israel unconditionally, and even Pakistan’s somewhat hypocritical readiness to clean up its nuclear proliferation act — all are encouraging signs that the U.S. presence in Iraq is proving beneficial for the region in general, and Israel in particular.
One natural corollary of these developments is the opening of a window of opportunity for Israel to deal forthrightly with the Palestinian issue and to negotiate with Syria from a position of strength. Yet despite Prime Minister Sharon’s proposal to remove some settlements from the Gaza Strip, his government still seems determined to strengthen its grip on so much of the West Bank as to preclude any peaceful settlement, even if and when Yasser Arafat is replaced by a more reasonable partner. As for Syria, not only is Sharon able to ignore its offer to renew talks, but for the first time in decades Damascus is not even a candidate for an American-brokered peace process with Israel. Indeed, neocons counsel Jerusalem to steer clear of peace talks with Bashar al-Assad’s regime until American pressure has softened up Damascus even further.
Sharon’s position benefits from the Bush administration’s indifference. Washington remains essentially preoccupied with the war in Iraq as its key strategic consideration in shaping its commitment to Israeli-Arab issues. A year ago, the Bush administration’s guiding principle was that if the United States talked a good game on ending the Israeli-Palestinian violence and restoring the peace process, this would help it recruit allies for the war in Iraq or at least blunt opposition in Europe and the Arab world. By the same token, once the war was over, it was believed that Washington’s sponsorship of the “road map” peace plan would help ensure the good will of Iraqis and their Arab neighbors.
But the United States never made good on this promise. The rather rapid postwar dampening of American ardor in facilitating the road map is explained, at least in part, by the administration’s growing sense of distress in Iraq as the American casualty toll mounted in late 2003 and early 2004. With American elections looming, one large and risky commitment in the Middle East is more than enough for the administration. Given this reality, the fall of Saddam is not likely to revive the Israeli-Arab peace process any time soon.
Yossi Alpher is co-editor of bitterlemons.org, a Palestinian-Israeli Web-based dialogue, and bitterlemons-international.org, an online forum on Middle East issues. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and was a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak.