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Iraq Unrest May Boost Sharon Visit, but in Long Run It Bodes Ill for Israel

April 12, 2004
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The conflagration in Iraq is likely to draw Israel and the United States closer for now, but a long-term war could riddle the alliance with political land mines.

The uncertainty flourishing in Iraq is reinforcing American reliance on its closest regional ally, but a failure in Iraq could lead to a range of dire outcomes for Israel, including a new U.S. isolationism that would embolden radicals in the region.

“The stakes are very high for Israel,” said Steven Spiegel, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum. “Should Iraq descend into chaos, instability, an anti-Israel government — that would be a serious blow for Israel.”

In the short term, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a clear advantage in his meeting, which was set for Wednesday, with President Bush. Bush is under fire from Democrats and some Republicans for a perceived failure to directly address the mounting casualties in Iraq, and needs whatever Middle East success he can achieve.

“It puts all the more importance on a successful meeting between Sharon and the president,” said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs who travels frequently to the region as president of the Middle East Institute, a think tank. “The last thing the president needs is any more problems in the region.”

Sharon is to present Bush with his final plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The subject of intense U.S.-Israeli negotiation for weeks, the plan still is under wraps, but Sharon appears ready to extract major concessions.

Sharon said last week that he will evacuate only four West Bank settlements in the initial stages of the withdrawal. At the same time, Israeli officials are suggesting that Bush is ready to state in a letter that Israel will not have to return to its border prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, known as the Green Line.

Last month, senior U.S. officials adamantly rejected any such recognition of Israel’s claim to parts of the West Bank. Then, two weeks ago, U.S. officials said they were considering expressing support for Israel’s claim to three West Bank settlement blocs — provided that Sharon’s withdrawal was far-reaching.

Now it appears Bush will hand Sharon a letter supporting some Israeli annexation in exchange even for a minimal West Bank withdrawal.

“Sharon is in a stronger position now that Bush is in trouble in Iraq,” said Raymond Tanter, a Reagan-era member of the National Security Council now working with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The last thing Bush needs is trouble from Sharon in a political year.”

However, the United States refused an Israeli request to come out explicitly against the Palestinian demand that refugees from the 1948 war, and their descendants, be allowed to return to Israel.

On the other hand, the United States has signed on wholeheartedly to Israel’s West Bank security barrier after Israel adjusted the route to meet U.S. concerns. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that Israel would suffer no deductions this year from loan guarantees because of the barrier, as opposed to last year, when the fence cost Israel almost $300 million in guarantees.

“At the moment, we don’t have any plans to dock them over the route of the fence,” Powell told a Senate panel last week.

In any case, Israel does not expect to implement a withdrawal for another year — and by that time, whatever negotiating victories Sharon wins from Bush this week could be faded memories in the case of a protracted Iraq war.

Violence in Iraq intensified recently, shortly after U.S.-led occupation troops detained an Iraqi cleric who had expressed solidarity with Hamas after Israel assassinated the terrorist group’s chief. Though there was not necessarily a connection, the chronology still could become fodder for those who argue that close ties to Israel harms U.S. interests in the region.

Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, worried that the American public could become increasingly isolationist if Iraq becomes a quagmire.

“If in the long run there is a sense that Iraq has been a failure, it could affect the mood of the American people when it comes to the Middle East, with more and more voices like Pat Buchanan pushing neo-isolationism,” he said.

Another casualty, Luft said, would be Bush administration plans to use Iraqi oil to counter the Saudis’ long-standing hegemony over global energy policy.

“When you don’t have security in Iraq, oil companies don’t want to invest,” he said. “America thought it would be less dependent on the Saudis; now it could be more dependent on the Saudis.”

Tanter had hoped to see the revival of a pre-1948 oil pipeline from Mosul in Iraq to Haifa in Israel — though the provisional leaders the United States and its allies picked to run Iraq said from the start that they were not considering closer ties to Israel.

“Some of us who talked about a new Middle East, who assumed that the road to Jerusalem went through Baghdad — the fighting puts a damper on that,” Tanter said.

Perhaps the most fearsome outcome would be an increased radicalization of the region. Iran reportedly is backing Moqtada Al-Sadr, the Shi’ite cleric at the center of much of the anti-U.S. insurgency, and it would be emboldened by any dilution of U.S. influence and prestige.

So, too, would the Palestinians, Spiegel said.

“If the United States appears to fail in Iraq, it will have a highly deleterious impact on Israel’s standing. It will give the Palestinians less incentive to give up on the intifada,” said Spiegel, who teaches political science at UCLA.

U.S. efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — already in abeyance after the failure of the “road map” peace plan — likely would flag even further, Spiegel said.

Another concern for Israel, Walker said, was the threat to relatively moderate Arab governments that a routing of the United States would impose. He noted that two such leaders, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan, are due to visit Bush in coming days.

“For the Jordanians, a meltdown in Iraq would be the worst thing,” he said. “King Abdullah will make it very clear to the president that it is imperative for the United States to stay the course. He cannot allow the situation to deteriorate so that it becomes an infection.”

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