Israeli Experts Say Middle East Was Safer With Saddam in Iraq

By Orly Halpern

Published January 05, 2007, issue of January 05, 2007.
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Jerusalem - Although few tears were shed in Israel over Saddam Hussein’s death last week, a small but growing chorus — including government officials, academics and Iraqi émigrés — is warning that Israel could find itself in more danger with him gone, and that it might even regret having welcomed his toppling.

“If I knew then what I know today, I would not have recommended going to war, because Saddam was far less dangerous than I thought,” said Haifa University political scientist Amatzia Baram, one of Israel’s leading Iraq experts.

Saddam was feared and reviled in Israel, both as a tyrant and as an enemy of the Jewish state. He demonstratively supported Palestinian terrorists, and few have forgiven his bombarding of Israel with Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War.

“Retrospectively, justice has been done,” Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel Radio this week. Still, he cautioned, Israel must now be concerned “about what is liable to happen in the future.”

Saddam’s death, Sneh warned, could lead to “a reinforcement of Iranian influence in Iraq.” He said that Iraq had turned into a “volcano of terror” following the war, with “destructive energies” that could spill over into Jordan and Israel.

Such misgivings, though rarely aired publicly for fear of offending Washington, reach high into Israel’s security establishment. Yuval Diskin, director of the Shin Bet security service, told a group of students in a military preparatory program last May that Israel might come to regret its support for the American-led invasion in March 2003.

“When you dismantle a system in which there is a despot who controls his people by force, you have chaos,” Diskin said, unaware that the meeting was secretly recorded. “I’m not sure we won’t miss Saddam.” The tape was later broadcast on Israeli television.

Although Iraq was long feared as a formidable enemy of the Jewish state, on the eve of the invasion it was poor and powerless. Palaces across the country were made of cheap plaster. Nuclear and biological weapons seen as threats by the Bush administration were nonexistent.

Baram, the Iraq expert, said that before the war started, he advised American officials of problems they might face afterward. What he did not anticipate, he said, was the scale of terrorism that would spread across the country, calling it “much, much more than I expected.”

Since the invasion, chaos has swept Iraq. Terrorist bombs in public places, sectarian attacks between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and ordinary criminal violence kill tens of people daily. One study estimates that some 650,000 Iraqis have died violently since the war, killed either by American and allied forces, terrorists or criminals.

Even some of those who suffered directly from Saddam’s brutality told the Forward that in retrospect, Israel was better off with him than without.

Baghdad-born Avraham Eini was a teenager when his father was arrested and tortured by Saddam’s security agents in the 1970s. “He later died of his wounds,” said 54-year-old Eini, who had escaped with his family and settled in Ramat Gan. Two decades later, in 1991, Iraqi Scud missiles fell 200 yards from his house.

Eini said he felt a sense of “revenge and relief” when Saddam was executed last week. Yet, he said, “Israel would be safer today if Saddam stayed in power.”

Saddam and his Ba’athist revolutionary colleagues came to power in 1968, a year after the crushing defeat of Arab armies by Israel in the Six-Day War. Vice president and strongman of the regime, Saddam had an attitude that was decidedly anti-Israel, following Ba’athist ideology and postwar Arab sentiment. One of his first notorious moves was to hang 17 alleged spies, nine of them Jewish.

Throughout the 1970s Saddam’s anti-Israel rhetoric continued, along with his hounding of Iraqi Jews and his support for the Arab Liberation Front, a militant Palestinian group that shelled Israel from southern Lebanon. He took full control as president in 1979, escalating his rhetoric and brutality. Shortly afterward, Iraq invaded Iran:, touching off a bloody, eight-year war that inflicted huge hardship.

In 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed Iraq’s nuclear plant at Osirak, but Saddam kept his ambition to be the first Arab nuclear power.

A few years into the Iran-Iraq war, however, Saddam moderated his anti-Israel stance. Some observers believe he merely hoped to curry favor with Washington. Others say that even so, it might have led to a thaw. Jews in Iraq were now protected by a special unit and had a phone number to call if harassed. “Nobody could touch us,” said Emad Levy, who lived in Iraq at the time.

In 1982 Saddam told a visiting congressman that he supported the “existence of an independent Palestinian state accepted by the Palestinians.” He added, “It is also necessary to have a state of security for the Israelis.” Israeli officials publicly dismissed the feelers as a smokescreen.

Soon after, Saddam moved closer to Egypt, which he had previously snubbed for making peace with Israel. Iraq’s government-controlled newspapers began using the word “Israel” in place of “the Zionist enemy.”

In early 1986, Israel’s then-prime minister, Shimon Peres, a supporter of secret American-Iran arms deals, stopped supplying Iran and sent aides to meet secretly with Iraqi officials. The contacts were reported in the Israeli press but firmly denied by both sides. “Nothing came of the meetings,” Baram said, “but they showed that something was moving.”

Later in 1986, when the hawkish Yitzhak Shamir became prime minister, the meetings were shut down.

Today such talks are inconceivable. There is no one to talk to in a nation collapsing into warring factions.

Following the invasion, Israel no longer faces a military threat from Iraq. But terrorist threats have moved closer. Last year, Iraq-based terrorists staged a deadly triple bombing attack on Amman hotels, and Al Qaeda attacked an American naval target in the Jordanian port of Aqaba, next door to Eilat.

The Iraqi threat was once quite serious. Iraq sent troops to fight in three wars against Israel, beginning in 1948. After the Iraq-Iran cease-fire in 1988, Iraq started rebuilding its arsenal — including its nuclear project.

But after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, America led an attack in 1991, forcing it to withdraw and to accept intrusive arms inspections, and punishing economic sanctions.

Even at their peak, Saddam’s nuclear ambitions were not necessarily aimed at Israel, experts say. “I never believed that Iraq stood to attack Israel,” said Yoram Meital, a professor of Middle East studies at Ben-Gurion University. Even when it lobbed 39 Scuds at Tel Aviv, “Iraq attacked Israel in the first Gulf War in order to cause Israel to attack Iraq and bring the disintegration of the international coalition against Iraq” by prompting Arab states to withdraw.

“He could have shot chemical weapons at Israel, but he didn’t,” said political scientist Eitan Barak, a security specialist at Hebrew University.

Exaggeration of such threats and grievances, Barak and others say, led American policy-makers, with Israel’s blessing, to replace a bad situation with a much worse one.

“Saddam’s regime was preferable — not only for us but for all the states in the region, except for maybe the Iranians,” Barak said. “Saddam held together a divided, tribal, hostile state of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. He was a single man who made all decisions, and he was a rational leader. The moment he was gone, everything fell apart.”

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