TEL AVIV (Dec. 14)
Spewing anti-Israel vitriol was one of Saddam Hussein’s specialties.
Of all the leaders in the Arab world, Saddam seemed to have the most to say against Israel and he seemed to say it the most often.
Now that he has been captured and faces possible trial, experts are asking whether or not the Jewish state will again be his target of choice.
“It will be interesting to see if he chooses to attack Israel this time, not with Scuds but verbally,” said Martin Kramer, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center. “Historically, when he found himself up against the wall, his usual method was to divert and deflect attention to Israel.”
After attacking Israel in the 1991 Gulf War, Hussein became fond of saying that the Iraqi people represented 22 million missiles against Israel.
It was Hussein’s rhetoric against Israel that “was the main glue for the Iraqis for developing national Iraqi feelings, and remained so until the very end,” said Ofra Bengio, a professor of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University. “Hussein wanted to be able to mobilize the population around Israel as the symbol of evil.”
In 1969, soon after Saddam was appointed Iraq’s vice president, the government hanged 17 alleged spies, 11 of whom were Jewish, in what is perceived as Saddam’s first message to Israel that he was a force with which to be reckoned.
The animosity continued in the 1970s, when Israel provided covert military training and support for Iraqi Kurds in their struggle against the regime in Baghdad. The enmity intensified in 1981 with Israel’s airstrike on Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak, outside of Baghdad.
Israeli officials defended the strike in the face of worldwide condemnation, arguing that Saddam’s regime was attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Years later, some of the same voices that condemned Israel in 1981 said the strike had been the correct move.
Out of all the Iraqi-Israeli recriminations, Hussein was proudest of Iraq’s firing of Scud missiles on the Jewish state. Casualties and damage from the attacks were minimal, but the rain of missiles caused Israelis trauma.
For the first time in the country’s history, Israel did not strike back when attacked. Instead, the Israelis, many of them survivors of persecution elsewhere, hid in their sealed rooms with gas masks while the government heeded a request by the United States — which was trying to keep intact its alliance with the Arab world against Saddam — not to counterattack.
Saddam’s power lay in part in his image and forceful rhetoric, said Bengio, author of “Saddam’s World.” Saddam “managed to put Israeli society into a panic for more than a decade. There was no basis for such hysteria, but he managed to do it,” she said.
But a serious Iraqi military threat never materialized, she said, because Saddam was on such bad terms with the Syrians and Jordanians to make common cause.
Making Israel the focus of his diatribes was politically profitable for Saddam. Presenting himself as a leader of the Arab world, Hussein could use anti-Israeli sentiment to rally Arabs behind him.
He was seen by many in the Arab street as a hero for taking bold stands against Israel and the United States. While other Arab nations entered into peace talks with Israel and acceded to U.S. pressure, Hussein stood firm with his belligerent stance.
The Palestinians cheered Saddam for supporting them, even when the Scuds he fired at Israel endangered them as well.
Most recently, Hussein enraged Israel during the current intifada by sending substantial monetary rewards to the families of suicide bombers who perpetrated attacks against Israelis.
There was, however, a brief period in the 1980s, under Yitzhak Rabin’s government, when high-level contacts took place between Israel and Iraq.
Led by Moshe Shaval, an Iraqi-born Israeli Cabinet minister, the secret talks aimed at securing minimal relations between the two countries and permitting return visits to Iraq by Israeli Jews from Iraq. The talks collapsed shortly after they began.