JERUSALEM — While Israelis gear up for an expected American war on Iraq, their leaders are increasingly preoccupied with “The Day After.”
Most senior strategists here believe Israel would emerge in a stronger position after a war. A changed regime in Baghdad is widely expected to create new opportunities for Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians. No less important, intelligence assessments place the danger of an Iraqi retaliatory attack on Israel at close to zero.
At the same time, alarm is growing over the mounting threat from Iraq’s far more dangerous neighbor, Iran, which some officials fear could emerge considerably strengthened in the aftermath of an Iraq war.
Most Israeli intelligence officials, in both the Mossad and Military Intelligence, believe a quick and decisive American victory against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would send positive shock-waves throughout the Middle East, convincing hard-line and terrorist-supporting regimes to mend their ways for the better.
But the view is not universal. The Shin Bet general security service, charged with intelligence gathering in Israel and the territories, claims the war may not have much of a regional effect at all.
As a harbinger of positive fallout from the war, many Israeli analysts point to the impending appointment of Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, to the newly created post of Palestinian prime minister. Abu Mazen, who has worked closely with successive Israeli governments for more than 20 years, has forcefully criticized the Palestinian intifada in recent months and called for renewed peace talks with Israel.
Prime Minister Sharon and his advisers believe Yasser Arafat will fight tooth and nail to maintain his ultimate decision-making authority, and they remain convinced that a concerted Palestinian effort against terrorism is still a distant dream. Nonetheless they acknowledge that Abu Mazen’s appointment is a “step in the right direction,” as one Sharon adviser said this week. “It’s not a light at the end of the tunnel, but it is a flicker.”
Arafat’s reluctant agreement to yield even a fraction of his authority is viewed in Israel not only as an outcome of concerted international pressure, but also as an attempt to adjust to a post-Iraq, American-dominated Middle East. American officials have assured worried Israelis that they expect the same lessons to be drawn in Tehran, whose growing nuclear capabilities have been a topic of recent media scrutiny.
For the last several months, Israeli officials have been prodding Washington to carry its campaign against the “axis of evil” on to Iran immediately after the end of the Iraq war. Israel’s national security adviser, former Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, as well as longtime Sharon adviser and former Cabinet minister Dan Meridor, have been warning Washington against “complacency” toward Iran. They, along with others, fear Tehran could emerge strengthened from the decimation of Iraq, its main rival, and thus emboldened in its belligerent attitude toward Israel.
Israeli policy-makers maintain that Iran is still “a year or two” away from assembling a nuclear bomb. Still, they view Iran as a clear and present danger to Israel, more dangerous in some eyes than Iraq. In addition to sharing intelligence on Iran’s new uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz, Israel has recently conveyed to American and British intelligence services reports of a dramatic increase in Iranian support and finance for anti-Israeli terrorism. The reports say Iranian support has spread beyond Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to include Fatah cells in Gaza and the West Bank.
Some experts, such as Shai Feldman at the Tel Aviv-based Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, believe the Tehran regime is ultimately more rational than Saddam’s, and hence less prone to catastrophic miscalculations like those made by Saddam in Kuwait and in the Iran-Iraq war. Others point to a recently compiled government dossier of public statements by Iranian officials, which lists no less than 150 threats against Israel’s very existence. As recently as last year, former Iranian president Ali Akhbar Rafsanjani was quoted as saying that Israel would be “devastated” by a single nuclear bomb, while the Islamic world would only be “damaged.”
One well-placed Israeli official told the Forward this week that after the expected war on Iraq, Israel would launch a renewed effort to create an international campaign against Iran’s nuclear industry, but failing that, it would have to consider “other options.” The official noted Israel’s efforts in recent years to create a sea-based, submarine-launched second strike option in case of a nuclear attack, as well as the acquisition several years ago of long-range F-15-I aircraft. “At the time, people thought the ‘I’ stood for Israel,” the official said, “but in the air force it’s considered to be a symbol of Iraq, or, alternatively, Iran.”
Israelis are also concerned about the possibility of Iranian intervention in the upcoming campaign in Iraq, in case the American offensive goes awry. Reports have reached Jerusalem that Tehran has been massing troops of Iraqi Shi’ite origin on its long border with Iraq, in anticipation of a possible invasion. The goal may be an Islamist regime in Iraq as a whole, or in a breakaway radical republic in the Shi’ite south.
Although official Israel has not faulted Washington publicly, many politicians and analysts here are alarmed at what they see as the administration’s diplomatic ineptitude, which has led to its current morass in the United Nations Security Council. The growing international opposition to American policies is clouding the prospects for a rosy, post-Iraq “new order” in the Middle East, and increasing chances that rogue regimes such as Iran’s will try to fill the void and increase their regional influence.
In the end, Israeli policy-makers are still convinced that the war is inevitable. The chief of Military Intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze’evi, predicted this week that war would begin “within days.” The possibility that Washington would ultimately be forced by international pressure to back down from its current determination is deemed in Israel to be “unthinkable,” a sure recipe for Middle East upheaval. It would also represent a clear victory for anti-American and anti-Israeli regimes, including Syria, Iran and hard-line elements within the Palestinian Authority.
The growing Israeli preoccupation with “The Day After” is also a reflection of the increasing sense that Israel will have no role in the war itself. Despite months of frantic military and civil defense preparations, creating widespread public panic, intelligence officials are now convinced that there is only a “miniscule chance” that Iraq will decide to attack Israel in case of an American offensive.
The officials cite a long list of reasons for the decreased danger assessement. They include Saddam’s limited ballistic capabilities, Israel’s formidable anti-missile defense systems and an expected massive American effort to “neutralize” western Iraq as a launching ground for missile attacks. Saddam, officials believe, is also aware that he cannot count on the same kind of Israeli restraint shown in 1991.
Washington, for its part, has been increasing its pressure on Israel to refrain from retaliation in case of an Iraqi attack. Some Israeli officials cite America’s go-slow response to the Israeli request for desperately-needed loan guarantees and direct military aid as a sign of an emerging American “tit for tat” policy of pressure. Barred from relying on an immediate American bailout, the new finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been plunged into a fierce battle with the defense establishment over a proposed massive $1.5 billion cut in the defense budget, which defense officials maintain is unsustainable without severe damage to Israel’s defensive capabilities.
Israel’s main newspapers carried front-page banner headlines this week depicting an alleged American-Israeli spat over what was described as Israeli officials’ “blabbering” on the impending war with Iraq. The reports also cited an American threat, which American officials promptly denied, not to give Israel any advance warning on the outbreak of the war, lest it be leaked to the press.
The alarming headlines, officials said, stemmed from a single diplomatic cable sent by a junior Israeli diplomat in New York that was leaked to the press because of bureaucratic infighting between the Foreign Ministry and the army spokesperson. But the American ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurzer, told reporters that cooperation between Israel and the United States “has never been closer,” pledging that Washington “would never surprise an ally.”
The very next day, however, the Americans heard Sharon saying the very last words they wanted to hear: Israel, he said, would be “duty-bound” to retaliate for any Iraqi attack on Israel. Not only are the Americans finding it hard to control world opinion; now they can’t even keep their staunchest ally in line.