JERUSALEM, March 22 (JTA) — When the United States launched its war on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Israeli planners were hoping for major strategic changes that would promote regional stability. A year later, the results are mixed. There have been some major strategic gains: potential nuclear threats from Iran and Libya have been reduced, the threat of Iraq and Syria joining forces in a land war on Israel’s northeastern border has been removed, and on Israel’s northern border, the Hezbollah terrorist group has been exercising newfound restraint. But the hoped-for domino effect against terrorism and its sponsors has not materialized. The terrorist threat to Israel actually has grown, and the chances of peace with the Palestinians appear increasingly remote. Much will depend on whether the United States sees through the regime-change process and creates a stable democracy in Iraq or withdraws in disarray, leaving behind a trail of chaos and resentment. Though no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, Israeli experts still maintain that Saddam had advanced chemical and biological weapons’ programs and that if left to his own devices, he would have obtained nuclear bombs sooner or later. Israeli strategists argue that the fact that such developments were pre-empted by the war is a major strategic boon not only for Israel, but for the Western world as a whole. The most unexpected strategic gain for Israel was the domino effect on Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar Gadhafi. Days after Saddam’s capture by American forces in December, Gadhafi announced his readiness to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction programs. Israeli officials believe Gadhafi is genuine and that Libya can be removed from Israel’s “threat map.” They maintain that had Gadhafi developed a nuclear capability, Israel and the West would have had to invest huge resources in developing a suitable response. The same Israeli officials are far less sanguine about Iran’s declared readiness to suspend its nuclear program. They believe the Iranians are playing for time. But they note that even if the Iranians go back on their promises, the war in Iraq has pushed back their nuclear timetable. It also has created a framework for international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear development. That is no small achievement, the Israeli officials say. One of the Israeli military planners’ greatest nightmares was the specter of massive Iraqi, Syrian and Jordanian tank forces rolling across the desert toward Israel’s eastern border. This scenario was dubbed the “Eastern Front” problem, and it was one of the main reasons for Israel’s huge tank build up, even after achieving peace with Egypt and Jordan. The removal of Iraq from the equation makes the scenario totally unrealistic. Israel’s military planners will be able to risk major cutbacks in land forces and already are considering which units they can do without. There also is a significant political dimension to the Eastern Front’s disappearance. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon always had insisted on retaining the Jordan Valley, between the West Bank and Jordan, as an additional buffer against the Eastern Front. That would have meant that any future Palestinian state would have had to settle for no more than 80 percent of the West Bank. Now that the Eastern Front no longer exists, Sharon can consider relinquishing the Jordan Valley and strengthening chances for a future territorial settlement with the Palestinians. Saddam’s elimination and the collapse of Eastern Front also has heightened Syria’s weakness and isolation. This already has led to overtures to Israel from Syria’s President Bashar Assad, which Israel dismissed as insincere. But a weakened Syria may well make serious approaches for peace with Israel soon. In addition, with Israel and the United States believing that the best hope for long-term peace in the Middle East is the overthrow of autocratic regimes and the spread of democracy, they could not but take heart from unprecedented criticism of the Assad regime and recent Kurdish riots in Syria. One group of protesters said explicitly that they had been inspired by the overthrow of Saddam to challenge the sister Ba’athist regime in Damascus. Another gain for Israel is the restraint currently being exercised on its volatile northern border by Hezbollah. The group has been defined by the United States as a terrorist organization on a par with Al-Qaida, and its members may fear that attacks on Israel could elicit massive Israeli retaliation — with the backing of the United States. So Hezbollah, with Iranian aid, has changed its modus operandi: Instead of sparking direct military exchanges with Israel, it is clandestinely sending agents into the West Bank and Gaza Strip to help promote terrorism there. Indeed, in perhaps the greatest disappointment to Israeli policy makers, the Iraqi domino effect has not impacted the level of Palestinian terrorism. In a recent interview with Israel’s daily Ma’ariv, retired Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s closest political adviser, declared that “the domino effect worked where it wasn’t expected to, on Libya, and not where we hoped it would, on Arafat.” Ongoing Palestinian terrorism after the war in Iraq, and the sense that there was no one to talk to on the Palestinian side, led to Sharon’s plan for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. The first step, outside of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, is Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But both Israel and the United States feared that as in Iraq, a power struggle would ensue between different local factions. To ensure that the secular Palestinian Authority and not the fundamentalist Hamas takes control of Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal, Israel has been targeting Hamas and its leaders. Monday’s assassination of Hamas spiritual and political leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin was part of this policy. Israeli military intelligence estimates that this will weaken Hamas and reduce terrorism in the long term. Other analysts, however, warn that in assassinating a cleric, Israel may have opened a wider front with the Muslim world — precisely the kind of development the U.S.-led war in Iraq was meant to contain. Whether terrorism against Israel declines will depend to some extent on the degree to which the United States manages to stabilize the situation in Iraq, Israeli analysts believe. As far as its strategic impact on the region is concerned, they argue, the American story in Iraq is far from over. This month’s signing of a provisional constitution in Iraq should be a major achievement for the Americans, they say, but they fear that ongoing terrorism in Iraq still could disrupt Washington’s plans for a model democracy. And, they say, the way the struggle in Iraq between the United States and its terrorist opponents plays out could have major consequences for Israel and the region as a whole. Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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