News Analysis: Breakup of the Soviet Union Could Pose Danger to Israel

As Israelis rejoice over the triumph of democratization and reform in the Soviet Union, some are warning that the Jewish state could be threatened if the 15 Soviet republics all declare their independence and go their separate ways.

Six of those republics are Moslem and could make common cause with Moslem countries such as Iran, where anti-Zionism and hostility to Israel have long been entrenched.

One of them, Azerbaijan, declared independence Monday. Another Moslem republic, Kazakhstan, the third largest after Russia and the Ukraine, is the repository of about 27,000 nuclear warheads deployed by the Soviet armed forces.

Soviet affairs experts have warned for years of a frightening scenario in which one republic threatens its neighbors with nuclear attack. Now there is concern that one or more of those republics could join Iran in a holy war against the Jewish state.

At best, the possibility that the Moslem republics will defect from the Soviet Union could mean the de facto expansion of the Middle East conflict both in geographical and political terms.

The internal crisis in the Soviet Union, therefore, could create some very serious problems for Israel, sooner than expected.

Israelis are still stewing, meanwhile, over the support Palestinians showed for the conservative hard-liners who tried and failed last week to unseat Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Many believed that a hard-line takeover in the Soviet Union would reverse the thaw in Soviet-Israeli relations and perhaps stop Soviet Jews from pouring into the country.

NOT JUST ARABS ‘IN THE STREET’

Once the attempted coup failed, Palestinian personalities tried to draw a distinction between the “emotional reaction” of Arabs “in the street” who cheered the coup and the circumspection of the Palestinian leadership.

But, in fact, there is little evidence of such a division in the Palestinian community.

Sameha Khalil, a Palestinian radical who heads the Family Rehabilitation Society in the West Bank town of El-Bireh, said last week that he did not regret the attempt to oust Gorbachev.

“I hope that the Soviet Union once more will be a powerful and great nation, that America will no more be the only strong nation and that it will stand by us as it always did before Gorbachev’s reign,” Khalil declared before the coup had ended.

When the coup failed, Dr. Ghasan Khatib, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, who identifies as a Communist, said the “popular voices” hoped the change in the Soviet Union would lead to a cessation of Jewish immigration.

But the “responsible leadership,” including the Palestine Liberation Organization, was careful not to take sides in the Soviet crisis, he claimed.

The truth is that the popular reaction was the authentic reaction of the Palestinian com- munity. It was neither hysterical nor emotional. There was none of the dancing on the roofs, as happened last winter when Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israel during the Persian Gulf war.

Professor Amnon Rubinstein of Israel’s dovish Center-Shinui Movement maintained that the Palestinians would have been no closer to their national goals had the coup succeeded.

OVERWHELMING PALESTINIAN FRUSTRATION

He is probably right. But he neglects to view events from the Palestinian perspective.

In the Dehaishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem, and in the narrow alleys of East Jerusalem, the political fortunes of the Palestinians have sunk so low that almost anything can be seen as an improvement.

The political reality is that Israel is in firm control of the administered territories, the settlements there prosper, the intifada is stalled and Palestinian frustrations overwhelm their hopes.

Little wonder that the prospect of sudden radical changes in the Soviet Union created a stir.

Israelis taunt the Palestinians for invariably backing the wrong horse. But as long as there is no movement on the political front, the Palestinians will look to outside saviors, whether their name is Saddam Hussein or Gennady Yanayev, who for three days last week was acting president of the Soviet Union.

Nor can the Palestinians be faulted for not foreseeing the swift collapse of the Moscow coup. Few if any diplomats or commentators did.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir prided himself on keeping silent, a tacit admission that he had no idea whether the coup would fail or succeed.

According to Israeli Soviet affairs expert Michael Agursky, the new Soviet state is not likely to end its by now modest involvement in the Middle East peace process. Agursky in fact, sees it as little more than “a front for the Pax Americana.”

Soviet Middle East policy also is unlikely to change in the short term. Starved for cash, the Soviets will sell sophisticated weapons to whomever can pay, including Syria. The Soviets also will likely continue to support the Palestinian cause.

In the long term, the end of the Cold War relieves the Soviets of the fear that the Middle East could be the launching pad for a Western attack on them.

If the Soviet Union breaks up into 15 republics however, Western motives will be irrelevant to their policies.

NEXT STORY