Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: U.S. Confrontation with Iraq Raises Fears for Israel, Peace

In 1990, Iraqi aggression against Kuwait led to a full-fledged international war the following year and a torrent of Scud missiles in the heart of Israel.

Given this history, it was probably not surprising that when the United States struck at Iraqi military targets this week in response to the latest Iraqi aggression, Israeli citizens rushed to trade in their Gulf War masks for new ones.

But Middle East analysts have mixed views about the likelihood of the latest U.S.-Iraqi confrontation escalating into another attack on Israel.

At the same time, some experts believe that the latest flare-up will not cause reverberations in the Middle East peace process.

“There will be zero impact on the peace process,” said Adam Garfinkle, executive editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy journal in the United States.

Still, Israel and its Arab neighbors have already split in their reaction to the Clinton administration’s decision to unleash 27 cruise missiles at Iraqi military targets in southern Iraq on Tuesday.

Administration officials said the attack was in response to Iraqi attacks against Kurds in a protected zone in northern Iraq and was also a pre-emptive move against threats to Iraq’s neighbors.

Israeli Primer Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he understood Clinton’s decision to take action and backed the principle “that aggression of this kind must not go unpunished.”

“It is a principle of all those who want to see the advancement of peace not only in this region, but in the world,” Netanyahu said Tuesday as he sought to reassure his own population about an imminent threat from Iraq.

“We are watching very closely what is transpiring in Iraq and have been briefed by the government of the United States,” Netanyahu told reporters after meeting in his Jerusalem office with U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk.

Indyk also briefed Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

“We do not see right now a danger of the conflict spilling over into this region, but we do have to be vigilant. So we are vigilant in taking the precautions necessary,” the prime minister said.

The Israeli leader said the United States had kept him abreast of all developments and that the briefing after the attack was not his first.

Several American Jewish groups, including the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella organization, expressed support for the U.S. action.

For their part, Jordan and the Palestinians — both of whom stood as pariahs in the Arab world because of their support for Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War – – criticized the American strike this week.

Palestinian legislative council member Ziad Abu-Ziad said the military action was an attempt by Clinton to boost his re-election bid and that it would harm the peace process.

“It’s not helpful, especially at this crucial time in the Middle East, when we are facing big difficulties in the peace process, especially on the Palestinian and Israeli track, and the Israeli and Syrian track.”

An escalation of the conflict could force moderate states such as Jordan to take a more extreme position, potentially complicating the Middle East peace process.

“If things heat up, King Hussein will have to retreat or move to a more pro- Iraqi position” in order to maintain the support of his people, said Daniel Pipes, editor of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Quarterly.

“This could cause real problems.”

Much has changed in the Middle East since the Gulf War, including improved relations between Israel and the Arab world and between the United States and the Arab world.

Despite these advances, however, a “significant minority of the population of the Middle East will support Saddam,” Pipes said.

“Palestinians regret the 20th century,” he said.

“They don’t like [their] borders, economic situation or the military strength,” Pipes said. “This makes them extremely susceptible to a leader who charms them with great aspirations and takes steps against the West and Israel.”

The rest of the Arab world was also largely critical of the U.S. move.

Their response was a very far cry from the days of the anti-Iraq coalition among Arab and Western nations, meticulously constructed by then-President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in the build-up to the Gulf War, which began in January 1991.

Their response can be attributed, in the view of some analysts, to the traditional regional indifference to the fate of the Kurds.

Back in 1991, even hard-line Syria set aside its reservations over American intervention, and dispatched forces to the Saudi Desert to help beat back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

But Kuwait, Arab and oil rich, is a far cry from the long- oppressed Kurds in northern Iraq, whose internal divisions precipitated Saddam’s armed intervention.

In addition, according to Israeli analysts, Arab states fear a breakup of Iraq, and the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in the north and, perhaps, a new Shi’ite state in the south.

Indeed, the internal Kurdish strife in the U.S.-protected zone in the north of Iraq has become, in the wider Arab view, a source of concern for future instability in the region.

Since 1991, moreover, most Arab states have begun rebuilding dialogues with Iraq – and are loath to see these relationships – some of them lucrative – destroyed now for the sake of the Kurds.

For Garfinkle, who has been studying the Kurds, the real test now is if Saddam stops and retreats or tries to strike in Sulaymaniyah, another Kurdish area in northern Iraq.

“That’s the only thing that could get out of control,” he said.

For now, he said, Israel is safe.

“It’s not like [Saddam] has a Scud loaded up aimed at Israel,” he said.

But others are more cautious.

“When Kurds are fighting Kurds, Iraq brings Israel in willy-nilly,” Pipes said.

And that’s what some Israelis are afraid of.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel in an attempt to draw it into the conflict and break up the alliance of Western and Arab countries.

During that war, Israel distributed gas masks to its citizens, and instructed them to create a sealed room in their home with plastic sheeting and tape, in an effort to counter suspected chemical warheads on the Iraqi missiles.

All the rockets launched at Israel had conventional warheads. The attacks resulted in the direct deaths of two Israelis and extensive property damage. At least a dozen other Israelis died from indirect causes, including heart attacks.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Israelis crowded gas mask distribution centers to trade in their old masks — some of which were later declared by the Israel Defense Force as defective — with new ones.

Some of those on line at a Tel Aviv distribution center denied that the latest developments had prompted them to come to the center.

“I’m moving apartments, and I decided this was a good time to get a new mask,” the domestic news agency Itim quoted one Israeli as saying. “I don’t even have a radio to hear the news.”

But others on line said they preferred to play it safe.

One woman, Tami, said to Itim that even before the Gulf War, “they said there was no chance of anything happening — and we saw what happened in the end.”

NEXT STORY