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Congressional report warns: War in Middle East is imminent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (JTA) — The Middle East is on the verge of a major regional war, according to a congressional report. “The present vulnerability of Israel is so great that there is a unique opportunity to, at the very least, begin the process leading to the destruction of Israel,” according to a Dec. 10, 1996, study by the U.S. House of Representative’s Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. But Middle East experts — including both champions and critics of the peace process — are calling the report “garbage” and “alarmist and unreliable.” The report’s authors, Yossef Bodansky and Vaughn Forrest, who serve as staff members for the task force, had planned to keep their document, “Approaching the New Cycle of Arab-Israeli Fighting” secret, according to an aide to a member of Congress on the task force. But members of Congress received the report, and it has been leaked to the media and posted on the Internet, where it has created a stir among some on the political right. The report appeared in cyberspace just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was signing the latest agreement with the Palestinian Authority over Hebron. Just as the majority of Israelis — indicated by public opinion surveys and the large Knesset majority affirming the accord — were letting down their guard, the report challenged the fundamental assumptions about the Arab world held by champions of the peace process. Instead of peace, the report argues, Arab states are exploring the option of war. Driving this is the explosion of fundamentalism throughout the Islamic world, as well as distrust of Israeli intentions and a belief that Israelis, embittered by internal dissension, have lost the will to fight. The underlying message of the report is that Israel is foolish to put its trust in states whose very existences are being challenged by militant Islam. But Middle East experts disagree with the report’s conclusions. “There has hardly been a frantic military buildup, certainly not in comparison to the past,” said Barry Rubin, senior resident scholar at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies of Bar-Ilan University. Rubin, who called the report “garbage,” also said that “the idea that there is some kind of Arab-Islamic conspiracy to attack Israel is totally unbased on any fact whatsoever.” Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, the Philadelphia-based think tank that publishes the journal Middle East Quarterly, agreed. The report is nothing more than “stitched-together quotes” of dubious provenance and authority. While the Middle East is “a dangerous place,” he said, for Israel, it is “the best of possible times” because “for the first time Israel is not facing any existential threat.” States that would make war against Israel are either too weak militarily or too preoccupied domestically, or both, Pipes says. According to the report, specific military moves suggesting active preparations for a possible war in the near future began in the spring of 1996. “These activities range from highly irregular and highly significant military exercises to political and international agreements,” according to the report. The authors base their conclusions in part on the belief that “political-strategic dynamics in the Middle East have already reached a deadlock that makes a dramatic breakout possible only through cataclysmic violence.” But according to some analysts, the breakout came peacefully, when Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat signed the Hebron accord last month. Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects at the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs, said the report was written at a low point in Israeli-Arab relations, when Hebron negotiations appeared deadlocked. Bodansky, who is credited with writing the bulk of the report, defended his conclusions. “This is a very prudent and reasonable assessment given the overall regional dynamics over the last few months,” he wrote in the report. Among the events chronicled in the report: * A spring 1996 summit between Syrian President Hafez Assad and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to agree that Iranian troops could cross Iraq to join a Syrian offensive against Israel. * A May 1996 Iranian military exercise simulating a deep offensive in an area identical to the distance between Iran and Israel. * A mid-June 1996 agreement between Iran and Syria to codify military cooperation against Israel. In mid-August, Iraq signed on as well. The report also states that Iran has functional nuclear weapons obtained from former Soviet Central Asia. According to the report, Syria gave a briefing in late November to its Arab allies stating, “The Syrian leadership now believes that the military option to liberate the Golan Heights from the Israeli army is a legitimate option. It also believes that Syria has the right to resort to this option at any time.” The report outlines a war scenario in which Syria would provoke a Lebanese attack from Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon, which would, in turn, instigate a major Israeli response that would include the killing of Syrian troops. Syria would retaliate by launching missiles against Israel. Syria would also work with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would launch a “wave of terrorism.” According to Rubin, the Mideast analyst, there has been concern over the possibility of war with Syria, “but intelligence assessments argue that this will not happen.” While Rubin said “we must be prepared” for any possible war with Syria, it is unlikely other Arab nations would become involved. Bodansky defends the track record of the task force, as does Rep. James Saxton, (R-N.J.), who serves as its chairman. Noting that he views the situation as “quite alarming,” Saxton said, “This may be a situation which will defuse itself. On the other hand, it may be something that is more serious” that needs to be explored further. (Shammai Engelmayer, news editor of the MetroWest Jewish News, contributed to this report.)