Iraq Still Poses a Threat, Israel’s U.N. Envoy Warns

Iraq’s once-vaunted military arsenal, much of it now strewn across the desert in burned-out hulks of tank metal and abandoned weapons, still retains enough might to pose a credible threat to Israel, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations warned Thursday.

And while the war ended in sweeping defeat for what was the world’s fourth largest army, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein so far has retained his hold, posing a continuing danger to Israel, the ambassador, Yoram Aridor, said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“Israel is still in danger, but we are capable of defending ourselves if and when the need to defend ourselves arises,” said Aridor, whose country has so far refrained from responding militarily to the 39 Iraqi missile attacks it has endured.

The 57-year-old former finance minister congratulated the U.S.-led forces that defeated the Iraqi army in just 100 hours, saying Hussein was stopped at the final moment before acquiring nuclear weapons.

“If he would have been able to finish his drive to acquire nuclear weapons, he would have constituted a threat to the whole world,” the envoy said.

Aridor, who was an Israeli Cabinet minister during the 1981 raid on Iraq’s nuclear research reactor, said Israel’s decision to attack — which triggered worldwide condemnation — was an early warning sign of the danger Hussein posed to other countries.

“It has been proved that by that action we saved not only Jewish lives, we saved lives of American and allied soldiers fighting in the Gulf,” he said. “We saved Arab lives, as well.”

READY FOR DIRECT PEACE TALKS

During the hour-long interview in his office at the Israeli Mission here, Aridor stressed over and over again Israel’s willingness to engage in direct, bilateral negotiations with its Arab neighbors. Except for Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978, no Arab country has relations with the Jewish state.

But he did not offer any new initiatives to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. And he adamantly affirmed Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization, saying the PLO had thoroughly discredited itself by showing support for Iraq during the Gulf conflict.

“The legend of the PLO was shattered even among Arab countries,” said Aridor. “I see no reason why we cannot have direct negotiations with any Arab country without any involvement of a terrorist organization.”

With the end of the Gulf war, the international focus has shifted to bringing security to the tumultuous Middle East region. And one of the top priorities, say Middle East analysts, will be finding an answer to the Palestinian question.

While Saddam Hussein ultimately failed in his attempt to link his withdrawal from Kuwait with a solution to the Palestinian problem, analysts say he did manage to push it to the forefront of the international agenda.

The U.N. Security Council, whose 15 members worked in unprecedented harmony to effect an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, might try to take its new-found unity and apply it to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Comparing the Security Council to a car, Aridor said sometimes Israel sits in the back seat and sometimes Israel is put outside by the car’s front wheels, where it can be run over by whoever is driving.

NO NEED FOR A SOVIET ROLE

But he said Israel “should not be worried. We must be concerned, and we have to take care that our situation and our problem will be better understood and that our policies to secure our people in our land will be better supported.”

He said Israel would not agree to participate in an international conference on the Middle East — an option that has been backed strongly by Arab and European nations, and one which the United States appears willing to consider.

Aridor also dismissed the idea of the Soviet Union becoming a major player in the region.

“There is no use or advantage in getting the Soviet Union involved again in the Middle East,” he said, noting its role in arming Iraq and its attempt to prevent the allied ground war against Iraq through a negotiated settlement.

Aridor did say that if Israel were to begin direct negotiations with its Arab neighbors, it could simultaneously open talks with representatives of the Palestinians about an autonomy plan.

“Of course, this means we will not talk with the PLO, which represents only terrorists,” he added.

He also maintained that there could be a role for Jordan’s King Hussein in the postwar period, despite the king’s support for Saddam Hussein over the past six months.

Although Israel and Jordan are formally at war, Israel has long had a tacit understanding with the usually pro-Western king, and the border between the two countries is mainly quiet.

“Our hope is that King Hussein’s regime will be continued,” said Aridor. “We hope it will be stable, although King Hussein is his own worst enemy. His behavior during the Gulf war was the behavior of someone who blessed the tiger for having dinner, with the hope the tiger will not be hungry by breakfast,” he said.

A FIERY SPEAKER

Aridor, who took up his post last October, shortly after the riots on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, in which Israeli border police fatally shot at least 17 Palestinians, has been a fiery if not combative speaker at Security Council meetings.

On Jan. 16, just before the war against Iraq broke out, the Security Council met at the behest of the PLO to consider a resolution to censure Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians.

Aridor, who spoke at the meeting, first welcomed the new council president, Ambassador Bagbeni Adeito Nzengeya of Zaire, and then compared the council to Nero, “the Roman emperor who found the time to fiddle while Rome was burning.”

He said the Security Council “hits a new record of irrelevance, playing the PLO’s latest tune,” and made an unflattering comparison between the council and a kangaroo court for attempting to judge Israel at such a time.

“Even a kangaroo court would have the decency, at least during the court’s proceedings, to remove the gun from the victim’s head. But the semblance of decency will not be forthcoming here,” he said.

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