WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (JTA) – A decade after he rained Scud missiles down on Tel Aviv during the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein again poses a threat to Israel, analysts say.
A series of steps Hussein has taken in recent months, including moving army units in the direction of Israel while issuing threats, has heightened anxiety levels in Israel. When Hussein blamed Israel for the bombing of Iraqi radar sites by American and British forces earlier this month, some Israelis again began to purchase gas masks.
Defeated by America and its allies during Operation Desert Storm in the winter of 1991, Hussein has hunkered down through a decade of sanctions and emerged with his leadership intact. In recent years, he has quietly regained his standing among the Arab nations, who now flout U.N. sanctions on flights to and trade with Iraq.
Experts believe Hussein may try to increase his power in the Arab world by demonstrating his military strength. Aiding the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel – especially with the fate of Jerusalem hanging in the balance for a billion Muslims – may be the opportunity Hussein is looking for, several analysts said.
“The threat to Israel is that Saddam Hussein thinks his role in the Arab world will be advanced if he plays a role in the military aggression against Israel,” said Patrick Clawson, research director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
While several Arab countries joined the American coalition fighting Hussein in the Gulf War, the leaders’ strategic choices never filtered down to the street. There, Hussein’s bombing of Israel and his decade-long defiance of America won him support.
“He gets in touch with the people on the street and represents the feelings of radicalization,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Report. “And the rest of the Arab leaders are left to pick up the pieces.”
Hussein in recent years has been re-embraced by the Arab League, and has developed relationships with new Middle East leaders such as Syrian President Bashar Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Those alliances have led to the loosening of sanctions against Iraq.
Imposed at the end of the Gulf War, the U.N. sanctions rely on neighboring Arab states to block military components from reaching Iraq. With Iraq’s neighbors less willing to play along in recent years, Hussein has been able to partially rebuild his forces.
The federal German intelligence agency published a report in recent days stating the Iraqi armament capabilities have improved considerably in the past two years. According to the German agency, the Iraqis have greatly stepped up efforts to produce chemical weapons, and could have nuclear weapons within three years.
Now, experts say, Hussein may use his military strength to establish himself as the staunchest ally of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and insert himself into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“They need each other,” Pipes said of Arafat and Hussein. “Arafat strengthens Hussein’s case as a leader of the Arabic cause,” while the Palestinians need the financial and military resources Iraq can provide.
If Hussein takes on Israel, it will be nearly impossible for his Arab neighbors to support the United Nations’ sanctions, Clawson said. In such a situation, the United States may be forced to negotiate for lesser sanctions that can be enforced more easily.
David Wurmser, director of Middle East studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said it is inevitable that Iraq will take action against Israel in the next year or two. Any American behavior could provoke this, Wurmser said – either a feeling that Iraq must retaliate for increased U.S. engagement in the region, or that a lack of U.S. engagement has created a vacuum Hussein can exploit.
“The current situation leaves the United States at a strategic watershed,” Wurmser said. With sanctions having failed, the Bush administration will have to choose whether to go into the region and attempt to oust Hussein, or whether leave the situation alone.
Either way, Wurmser said, Iraq is likely to attack Israel.
“Israel will not be able to resolve this without some sort of conflict,” he said. “Hopefully, it will happen while Saddam is going down.”
But other experts say this scenario is far too dire. While Hussein may want to attack Israel, he’s rational enough to realize that the disadvantages for him far outweigh any advantages, according to Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland.
Former President Bush was criticized for not taking down Hussein during the Gulf War. Any attack against Israel would lead to U.S. intervention against Iraq and give President George W. Bush the excuse to overthrow Hussein, Telhami said.
Hussein is not suicidal enough to take the bait, Telhami predicted.
“If he were to take on any adversary at this time, it would be the perfect opportunity for the United States and others who want to finish the job,” Telhami said.
Hussein would like to see the current Middle East violence persist because it helps create a linkage in Arab minds between the Israeli-Palestinian situation and the Iraqi one and builds sympathy for Iraq, Telhami said. The linkage has grown as many Arabs blame America for the failure of the peace process, and it has created a wave of anti-Americanism in the region that Iraq exploits, Telhami said.
Wurmser believes the United States will step up its enforcement role in the region and pursue a more aggressive policy against Iraq. The mid-February attacks against Iraqi radar sites may be a sign that what is left of the Gulf War alliance is ready to enforce the sanctions.
“I think the bombing shows that we will not, in the process of looking at whether we should modify the sanctions regime, not overlook his bad behavior, and we will use military force where we think it is necessary,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last Friday en route to the Middle East.
But Hussein may not allow the new White House the luxury of choosing its own timetable. Iraq’s campaign for legitimacy has reached a plateau, and Hussein may be eager to press forward.
In the last decade, Hussein has won the public relations war in the Arab community, shifting the blame for the plight of the Iraqi people onto the United States.
With the Arab world behind him, Hussein once again may set his sights on confronting the United States.
“He would like to use a combination of his geographical place next to the largest oil reserve and his weapons of mass destruction,” Pipes said. “Global ambition tinged with a hardened bitter desire for revenge. Not a pleasant combination.”
But while Israelis are keeping a wary eye on Hussein and his return to the Arab fold, they do not fear an imminent attack.
Ron Ben-Yishai, military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot, said Israeli experts are most concerned by the possibility that Iraq will be able to manufacture chemical and bacteriological weapons in the immediate future.
Israel shares Western intelligence services’ analysis about Iraq’s potential for weapons of mass destruction, but there is no immediate concern of Iraqi missile attacks like those in the Gulf War.
In fact, according to Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy minister of defense, the greater danger to Israel comes from Hussein’s neighbor, Iran – which also is embarked on a project for weapons of mass destruction, without the inconveniences posed by U.N. sanctions.
(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report).