WASHINGTON (Dec. 19)
President Bush said this week that he was “absolutely convinced” the international coalition against Iraq would not “fall apart” if Saddam Hussein decided to attack Israel.
But State Department officials appear to be less certain about the consequences of a scenario in which Israel is dragged into the Persian Gulf crisis by an Iraqi military assault.
While Middle East experts in the department would not dispute Bush’s statement, they were not particularly eager to affirm it either.
Even the president was a little vague Tuesday, when pressed on the possibility of an attack against Israel.
“I can’t give you the specifics on that, but I’m absolutely convinced of it, and you can assume the way I’ve answered the question that we’ve inquired about that,” Bush told a group of regional newspaper editors.
Bush’s statement, which follows a similar one made nearly two weeks earlier by Secretary of State James Baker, is a departure from the practice of administration officials, who generally do not engage in answering hypothetical questions.
This raises the possibility that Bush’s words may be more of a rhetorical device to warn Hussein against attacking Israel than an actual assessment of what is likely to happen.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that while it “stands to reason” that the anti-Iraq coalition would “hold together if the United States came to the defense of Israel,” nobody in the administration “has told us that.”
SYRIAN PLEDGE TO DEFEND JORDAN
State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher had no comment Wednesday when asked about a news report that Syrian President Hafez Assad had assured visiting Jordanian Prime Minister Mudar Badran that he would come to Jordan’s rescue in the event of an Israeli attack.
Syria has been part of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, while Jordan, which is economically dependent on Iraq, has officially remained neutral.
One State Department official who refused to comment on Bush’s statement said it was “guesswork” to think that Assad would come to Jordan’s defense if Israel attacked the Hashemite Kingdom. There are “so many possibilities” depending on the circumstances of such an attack, the official said.
A Syrian Embassy spokesman declined comment, saying he could only answer written questions. The press offices at the Saudi and Jordanian embassies did not provide any immediate reaction about any contingency plans involving any Israeli attack against an Arab country or an Arab attack against Israel.
But Baker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago that if Iraq attacked Israel, “there would be an appropriate response by the United States and, in our view, the Arab coalition partners would understand that.”