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War in Iraq After Saddam Falls, Israelis Breathe Sigh of Relief — but Just a Small One

April 14, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq mostly over, many Israelis breathed a sigh of relief late last week — but only a slight one, since they weren’t so worried to begin with.

“I was never afraid of the Scuds anyway,” says Moshe Gadassi, a 26-year-old law student soaking up the spring afternoon sun on the Tel Aviv boardwalk.

The threat of attack by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction bothered Gadassi as little as the hope of a “New Middle East,” which some predict in the post-Saddam era, excites him.

“Nothing will change here,” he said. “It’s great that Saddam fell, but until people here start seeing concrete economic changes, all of America’s brave efforts won’t mean much for us.”

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Sunday lowered Israel’s state of alert, releasing the 12,000 reservists called up when the war began and telling Israelis that they no longer needed to carry their gas masks at all times or maintain a sealed room in their homes.

But Israel’s Arrow anti-missile missiles and their crews remain glued to their radar consoles, and the Israel Defense Force continues to patrol the skies around the clock. According to IDF sources, maintaining a state of high alert cost Israel hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yet it seems that few Israelis even took the high alert seriously. Aside from a few high ranking officers — and Mofaz, who made a point of being seen with the strap of his plastic gas mask slung over his shoulder — Israelis long ago unilaterally declared an end to the threat, declining to carry their gas masks with them.

Even schoolchildren who a few weeks ago proudly flaunted their gas mask kits like honor badges were rarely seen in recent days carrying the cardboard boxes with black lettering.

Israeli officials have predicted that the overthrow of Saddam will send shock waves through the Middle East, showing Arab countries that terrorism will be defeated and opening new opportunities to make Arab-Israeli peace.

On the street, however, few Israelis expected radical changes in their part of the world.

“Do you really think the Arabs are going to change?” asked Eli Binar, 53, selling sweet almonds from a shopping cart on the boardwalk. “No way. I fought in four wars; I think I know the Arabs. They might make peace with America, but never with us.”

In a voice harsh from cigarette smoke, Binar gave a brief lecture on Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim anti- Semitism.

“It’s part of their culture,” he said. “And because of that we are going to be in this mess with the Arabs for as long as we live.”

While people like Gadassi and Binar forecast a dim future, there are a few bright, though hazy, signs on Israel’s horizon. One of the greatest boons for Israel could be the proposed reopening of the oil pipeline that used to run from Haifa through Jordan to Mosul, Iraq, and that served the British fleet harbored off Haifa until 1948.

According to Infrastructure Minister Yossef Paritzky, the pipeline would have to be widened to operate today, but could reduce energy prices in Israel by as much as 20 percent.

With such a deal, “Haifa could turn into another Rotterdam,” Paritzky said. “Tankers from all over the world would come to take oil or make use of Haifa’s top-of-the-line refineries.”

One Israeli source with strong ties to Jordan says Jordan is eager to reactivate the pipeline — provided that Israel renews peace talks with the Palestinians.

“That’s a sine qua non for Jordan,” the source said. “King Abdullah can not be seen as pandering to Israel, serving it cheap oil, while the Palestinian problem is forgotten.”

Jordan’s foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, has denied that Amman is engaged in talks with Israel over the pipeline. But he didn’t reject the idea altogether, something Paritsky saw as “very positive.”

Over 60 percent of the Jordanian population is Palestinian and anti-Israel sentiment there rages almost uncontrolled. Still, Jordan could profit handsomely from the deal, the Israeli source says.

Jordan took a huge gamble in supporting the U.S.-led war against Iraq, which ignited pro-Iraq sentiment in the street. A pipeline deal could partially serve to compensate Jordan for its pro-U.S. stance, as would a quick infusion of foreign aid, the source said.

For Israel, the pipeline deal wouldn’t exactly be a panacea, energy expert Amit Mor says. All told it would bring Israel only about $70 million per year, a small fraction of the country’s GDP.

When the cost of rehabilitating and widening the pipeline are factored in, energy prices in Israel would decrease only by about 5 percent, Mor estimates.

But such deals are over the head of many Israelis. Some, like Dely Asherov, proprietor of Dely’s Restaurant in Tel Aviv, think of a possible post-war boon in different terms.

“The end of Saddam Hussein is good for the digestion,” she said, dashing around to fill customers’ plates with Arabic salad.

The end of the war “could reduce our defense expenditures and boost the economy, which is the thing that people most want,” she said.

Asherov was especially enthused by a business article in the daily Ma’ariv newspaper, which said that Israeli investors were in discussions with American officials about the post-war rebuilding of Iraq.

According to the article, construction firms, telecommunication companies, engineers and electronics firms all are angling for a piece of what is expected to be a $100 billion pie.

“Think what that could do for us. These are all the things that Israel has expertise in” said Asherov, her eyes saucer-like.

But most Israelis think there is still a lot of unfinished business in the neighborhood.

Before Israel enters an economic renaissance, “America will have to deal with that Assad bastard,” she said, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Syria continues to support the Hezbollah terror group on Israel’s northern border, and hosts offices of terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“He’s got some chutzpah,” Asherov said of Assad, “and if he doesn’t play by the rules, he’ll be next.”

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