Israel is a Factor in Iraq Debate, but Jewish State Keeping Mum

Israel is trying to keep a low profile in the American debate over whether to attack Iraq, but the Jewish state figures prominently in both sides’ arguments.

Those in favor of action say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may have weapons of mass destruction and might be willing to use them to exert power in the Middle East.

Those arguing against an attack say it would be too costly and is tangential to the U.S. war on terrorism — and that, in any case, there is little evidence that Hussein is an imminent threat.

On each side, there is debate about the effect an attack on Iraq would have on U.S. “allies in the region,” an implicit reference to Israel.

It’s unclear what weapons of mass destruction Hussein may hold and whether he has the technical capacity to unleash them at Israel.

But Israel is taking no chances. Fearing that Iraq will again lash out at Israel if attacked — as it did in the 1991 Gulf War — Israel already is purchasing gas masks and has considered inoculating its entire population against smallpox.

Israel also asked its security and emergency services to complete preparations by Nov. 1 for a possible Iraqi retaliatory strike to a U.S. attack.

The United States has not told Israel if or when it will attack Iraq, but Nov. 1 seemed a “reasonable” deadline for preparations, a senior government official told The Associated Press.

While neither side in the American debate is publicly discussing the Israeli angle at length, “people on both sides” are using “the implications for Israel to support their arguments,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Those who favor an attack highlight the threat Hussein poses to the Middle East.

“Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror and” sitting atop “10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in an Aug. 26 speech.

Many see the speech as the beginning of a concerted White House campaign to make the case for attacking Iraq.

Cheney also suggested that after Hussein was defeated, the “Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.”

Yet those opposed to an attack say it would destabilize the Middle East and cause increased Arab frustration to boil over onto Israel.

Those opposed to action note that, if attacked, Hussein is likely to attack Israel; the United States in effect would be sacrificing Israel’s welfare by attacking Iraq, some say.

“Israel would have to expect to be the first casualty, as in 1991 when Saddam sought to bring Israel into the Gulf conflict,” former National Security Adviser Brent Scrowcroft wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 15. “This time, using weapons of mass destruction, he might succeed, provoking Israel to respond, perhaps with nuclear weapons, unleashing an Armageddon in the Middle East.”

Some even warn that U.S. support for Israel could be viewed as the catalyst for an attack against Iraq.

“Sadly, in international politics, as in domestic politics, perception is sometimes more important than reality,” former Secretary of State James Baker wrote in The Washington Post on Aug. 25. “We cannot allow our policy toward Iraq to be linked to the Arab-Israeli dispute, as Saddam Hussein will cynically demand, just as he did in 1990 and 1991.”

However, Baker then suggested that the United States indeed should push Israel to withdraw to its positions before the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000 and to end settlement activity in an effort to dampen anticipated Arab anger over an attack on Iraq.

Analysts say both sides have a point: Israel most likely will be profoundly affected by U.S. action against Iraq; it’s just not clear exactly how.

“I don’t think there is really one point of view,” said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. “A change in regime in Iraq will have vast consequences in the region, and there is no sense that the consequences will be positive.”

Michael Rubin, a visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, says the threat Hussein poses to Israel will only increase if the United States does not act.

“Many people say ‘Don’t put Hussein’s back against the wall, he might lash out,’ ” Rubin said. “But if Saddam Hussein feels there is no consequence for consistent flouting of cease-fire resolutions, it can get much more dangerous for Israel.”

Iraq poses an imminent threat to Israel because of Hussein’s financial support for terrorist organizations that target Israel and the growing concern that he could give groups chemical or biological weapons to one of the those, Rubin said.

In addition, Rubin said, backing out of an attack because of its impact on Israel would have negative consequences.

“It would set a very dangerous precedent to not address any threat in the Middle East because the object of the rogue behavior says, ‘If you touch me, I will attack Israel,’ ” he said.

For now, Israel and Jewish groups have largely remained on the sidelines of the American debate, even when it relates to the effect an attack would have on Israel.

Aware of the likelihood that it could come under attack, Israel has asked the United States to give it advance warning before moving against Iraq. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also has made clear that — unlike the Gulf War, when Israel heeded American pleas not to respond to Iraqi missiles — Israel will retaliate this time.

“In all likelihood, Israel will want to view this conflict from the bleachers and will not seek to get on the playing field for its own reasons,” Makovsky said. “But if Israel gets hit by Iraqi Scuds, all bets are off.”

While Israel certainly would prefer that Hussein pass from power, the consensus is that Israel is wiser to stay on the sidelines of the debate — at least publicly.

“It seems to me that Israel is more sympathetic to the hawkish side of the debate,” Makovsky said, “but since it plans not to be involved in the conflict, there is no need to make its views publicly known.”

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