Mideast regional war unlikely, experts say

JERUSALEM, Feb. 13 (JTA) – It did not take long after Ariel Sharon was elected Israel’s prime minister for alarms to sound from the Arab world.

On the day after the Feb. 6 elections, the Syrian government newspaper Al-Thawra branded Sharon’s victory a declaration of war. The Arab League later warned that Sharon could lead the entire Middle East toward disaster.

Ehud Barak, the incumbent prime minister trounced by Sharon, had tried to frighten Israelis during the campaign by warning that Sharon would drag the region into chaos. Post-election U.S. appeals for regional calm also reflected the fear that a storm was brewing.

Even as violence intensifies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, however, several experts told JTA that the chances of an all-out Mideast war are slim.

By and large, the experts said, Arab leaders – at least among Israel’s immediate neighbors – are keen to maintain stability and avoid conflict.

“The situation is unstable, but it is not nearly as unstable as it seems,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor and strategic expert at Bar-Ilan University. “The self-interest of the regimes and the Arab countries to avoid war is very high.”

Many Arabs consider Sharon a war criminal, but the contrast between popular Arab disgust and the response of key Arab leaders has been stark. While fiery editorials in the Arab press denounce Israelis’ decision to elect Sharon, many key Arab leaders have issued measured responses – even as they warn of dire consequences if Sharon backtracks on the peace process.

Amid the upsurge in violence, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat congratulated Sharon and said he would wait to see the direction and shape of the new Israeli government.

A meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Amman took a similar position. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has said explicitly that his country wants to avoid war.

“Even in Syria, where the rhetoric is in the opposite direction, the behavior has been cautious,” Steinberg said, referring to Syria’s perceived restraint of Hezbollah gunmen on the Israel-Lebanon border. “The Syrians and Egyptians clearly know that their militaries are not up to fighting Israel. Syria has not acquired a single weapon – nothing that moves – since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

But that does not mean there are no lurking threats.

“In the ‘inner circle,’ we still have peace agreements that have to be maintained and can survive the shock,” said Martin Kramer, director of the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The overall perspective of Israel is that the major threats come from outside the ‘inner circle,’ and potentially from Iran and Iraq down the road.”

Even so, Kramer does not expect to soon see nonconventional weapons raining down on Tel Aviv, or the Iraqi army rumbling across Jordan toward Jerusalem.

Still, the incoming Israeli government is taking nothing for granted. Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations and one of Sharon’s key foreign policy advisers during the transition period, gave a more pessimistic view of the regional situation.

Today’s threats are far more worrisome than those after the Gulf War a decade ago, Gold said.

Then, he explained, a defeated Iraq had been placed under strict U.N. sanctions. Iran was still reeling from its eight-year war with Iraq. The Soviet Union, which had provided strategic backing to many Arab regimes since 1955, was crumbling.

Now, the consensus on sanctions against Iraq is crumbling, international weapons monitoring is dead and the Russians, according to Gold, are freely transferring missile and nuclear technology to the Iranians.

“We are in a completely new strategic reality in the Middle East, and what it means is that Israel’s approach to peace and security has to be extremely cautious, taking into account that” Iran and Iraq “seek to be players in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said. “This elevates the importance of defensible borders like the Jordan Valley.”

One concern is Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who increasingly is trying to position himself as the champion of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Iraq recently flexed its muscles by moving five army divisions to the country’s Western panhandle bordering Jordan – from where, theoretically, they could roll across Jordan and reach Israel in 36 hours.

Nobody denies that King Abdullah of Jordan is loathe to allow Iraqi forces onto his territory, and that he maintains the best relations with Israel of any Arab leader. Nevertheless, under extreme circumstances – such as raging violence between Israel and the Palestinians – Abdullah could be pressured by Jordan’s large Palestinian population to take a more hostile approach.

“Jordan is a weak link,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said. “Like many other Arab rulers, Abdullah cannot rule without the consent of his subjects, and he cannot afford to continue peaceful relations with Israel if there is real tension.”

According to the official, if the United States does not re-emerge as a deterrent to Iraqi power, Saddam might tempt Abdullah, who constantly must strike a balance between Israel to the west and Iraq to the east. However, the official also pointed out, any worst-case scenario also depends on Israeli actions.

“In 1990, the reason King Hussein fell into Saddam’s arms – and we did see Iraqi reconnaissance flights over the Jordanian border – was a result of Israel’s policy that ‘Jordan is Palestine,’ ” said the official, referring to the position of Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s prime minister at the time.

Sharon originated that policy, who no longer uses such terms and now is open to a Palestinian state in part of the West Bank.

To prevent a regional flare-up, Sharon’s first priority will be to keep the violence with the Palestinians under control.

Yet this will be difficult, as Palestinian officials dismiss Sharon’s proposals for long-term nonbelligerency pacts, a far stingier offer than Barak’s. In addition, Palestinian militia leaders are calling for heightened attacks against Israel as a show of defiance against Sharon.

Sharon could find himself caught between the need to maintain regional stability and the need to show Israelis he will take tough action against Palestinian violence.

Hezbollah, too, could test Sharon’s resolve if the group’s backers – Iran and Syria – decide to step up their indirect role in pressuring Israel.

Analysts say that Israel’s deterrent power, long a stabilizing force in the region, has eroded since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon last May. In such a delicate situation, Sharon’s desire to re-establish this deterrence will be tricky.

“I hope” Sharon “will not be tempted to do reckless things, and maybe if we enter the government we can have an influence,” said Ephraim Sneh, a Barak confidant and Israel’s deputy defense minister. “If there is no solution in sight to the Palestinian conflict, we may face an accelerated guerrilla war in the territories that could deteriorate into a broader conflict.

“All measures must be taken to squelch it,” Sneh said. “But a responsible government of Israel has to do everything politically possible to prevent it.”

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