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Would Action Against Iraq Help or Harm the Jewish State?

September 13, 2002
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Despite a widespread consensus that U.S. action against Iraq would affect Israel, the question remains: Would such action help or harm the Jewish state?

President Bush’s speech Thursday at the United Nations General Assembly made no reference to Israel, but any action the United States takes is expected to fuel a counter-attack by Iraq on Israel.

Some have argued that the debate itself might prompt Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to launch a pre-emptive attack, and Israel would be the probable target.

Just hours after Bush delivered his speech, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on Capitol Hill, telling lawmakers that the world needed to act before additional attacks are carried out against Israel and other U.S. interests.

A strong supporter of U.S. actions against Iraq, he said he believes that despite the short-term consequences for his country, a mission against Saddam could prevent a mass casualty attack.

“We support this pre-emptive American action even though we stand on the front lines, while others criticize it as they sit comfortably on the sidelines,” he said.

“But we know that their sense of comfort is an illusion, for if action is not taken now, we will all be threatened by a much greater peril.”

He also said the United States should help Israel prepare for a possible Iraqi retaliation.

He said the United States should help provide “all means of civil defense,” such as smallpox vaccinations.

“Israel is the most likely target,” he said, testifying before the House Government Reform Committee. “It must be protected.”

Netanyahu said that while he is not certain that Israel would be attacked by Iraq if the United States does not act first, U.S. action is necessary.

“You have to connect the dots,” he said, pointing to Saddam’s work to compile weapons of mass destruction and the propensity he has shown to use them.

Netanyahu’s public comments appear to mirror the official Israeli position, but Israeli government officials have tried to take a less public stance.

“Iraq, although it’s a clear and present threat toward peace, stability and security, is not an Israeli problem,” Danny Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told JTA.

“We are not a part of this conflict, nor do we want to be.”

However, the ambassador reiterated the Israeli position that Israel would support U.S. actions, even if it went forward without U.N. or international support.

Critics of the U.S. actions against Iraq argue that, in addition to casualties that Israel would likely face from reprisal attacks, Israel’s entrance into the conflict could have damaging consequences.

While Israel, at the United States’ command, did not retaliate for Iraqi attacks on the country in the 1991 Gulf War, numerous Israeli officials have said Israel would not hold its fire this time around.

In particular, any use of nuclear weapons by the Jewish state in a retaliatory attack could have dire consequences.

“There are consequences for Israel and the world that follows such a war, even if Saddam is removed,” said Henry Siegman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“There will be lasting consequences that make, as far as the eye can see, establishing normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab and Islamic world more difficult.”

Others worry that the United States has not made clear its end game, and has not specified what it expects to implement in Iraq once Saddam’s regime is defeated.

A regime that follows Saddam could even have a closer link to terrorism, some have argued.

At the same time, supporters of Bush’s policy say a regime change in Iraq could lead to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They point to the Madrid Conference, which launched the Oslo peace process and came as a result of the Gulf War.

“American success in Iraq is likely to open the door for real reforms to take place” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said one senior official with a Jewish organization.

“The defeat of Saddam, someone who is aiding and abetting terrorism, has a profound influence.”

American Jewish leaders point to Saddam’s monetary support for the Palestinian Authority and the families of suicide bombers, and argue that Iraq’s defeat would send a strong statement to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and other regimes that sponsor terrorism.

“It can only help,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. “Terror regimes like Arafat’s will be frightened that they will be next and will be less successful in terrorism.”

But an Israeli official said there is no direct link between Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The Iraqi threat is a real threat, no matter what is the consequences with the Palestinians,” the official said. “The case of Iraq should be judged on the merits of the threat, regardless of the background noise.”

Despite the concerns over Israel, American Jewish leaders say their interest is the bigger picture.

“As much as we love Israel, this is not the issue,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I don’t think the American Jewish community views the Iraq issue solely through Israeli glasses.”

Foxman said he believes American Jewish support will come predominantly because action against Iraq follows three positions that the Jewish community shares with the Bush administration — support for the international coalition against terrorism, fear of weapons of mass destruction and the need for pre-emptive action to contain those threats.

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