Israel’s Best Weapon: Middle East Peace
Anger over the stalled Mideast peace process has clearlycontributed to Arab states’ reluctance to help the United Statesdeter Saddam Hussein. That is one reason the United States is nowpressing Israel for a serious and credible plan for withdrawing fromthe West Bank, it has been widely reported. Yet the Israeligovernment and some hard-line American supporters not only mistakenlydeny the connection between the peace process and the maintenance ofan effective anti-Saddam coalition, but they also neglect the factthat such a coalition is in Israel’s vital interests.
The existential dangers to Israel posed by Iraq and Iran weremajor reasons Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo peace accords with thePalestinians and pursued peace with Syria. His logic: Accords withIsrael’s immediate neighbors would result in a de facto alliance withmoderate Arab states that could isolate and defang Saddam Hussein andthe ayatollahs, and help to quash the development of weapons of massdestruction, whose first target would be Israel. Today, the samelogic should be helping to guide Israeli, as well as American,diplomacy.
With Russia’s help, it appears that Hussein will survive thecurrent showdown with the United States and the United Nations. Butin the coming months, the longer the peace process fails to meetminimal Palestinian aspirations, the harder it will be to persuadeHussein’s neighbors to cooperate in efforts to neutralize him. Thatmeans the dangers posed by Iraq to Israel could grow even if U.N.weapons inspectors are given more free reign.
Frustration with the peace process is hardly the only reason forthe fraying of the Gulf War coalition. And a successful peace processwould be critical to Israel’s long-term security if there were noSaddam Hussein. However, in a development largely unnoticed in theWest, Hussein has become a champion of the Palestinian cause — notmerely in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but also to many pan-Arabintellectuals and the Arab masses throughout the Middle East. Hesuccessfully promoted his linkage with the Palestinians during theGulf War when he announced that Iraq would withdraw from Kuwait afterIsrael withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today, thewidespread perception that Hussein is the last remaining Arab leaderwilling to confront Israel is one of his most important strategicassets.
Every Arab and Persian Gulf regime is frightened by Hussein’spotential to develop nonconventional weapons, but — except forKuwait — none are immune from strong domestic pressures to aid Iraqivictims of economic sanctions and support Hussein. New momentumtoward solving the Palestinian problem — and the sense that theUnited States is fostering that momentum — is an important part ofthe political cover that Iraq’s neighbors require in order toassociate themselves fully with American actions against Hussein.
Without this momentum, the international economic embargo that iscrucial to pressuring Iraq may very well collapse. Recently, therehas been an increase in the illegal movement of goods across Iraq’sborders with Iran, and other nations are reportedly chipping away atthe boycott. It will be difficult to prevent this trickle fromturning into a flood unless Middle East regimes have more incentivesto put the clamps on Hussein. The Iraqi leader’s association withPalestinian nationalism will remain a powerful disincentive as longas the Oslo peace process gets nowhere.
Even more ominously, Hussein benefits from the continuingSyrian-Israeli impasse. Syria recently reopened its Iraqi border andestablished diplomatic contacts with Baghdad. Iraq’s Deputy PrimeMinister Tariq Azziz visited Damascus two weeks ago, the first suchvisit in 18 years. These Syrian moves are prompted mainly by alarmover Israeli-Turkish military cooperation, but Israeli militaryexperts also believe that if Syrian President Assad becomes convincedthat peace talks with Israel will not yield the Golan Heights, he maybe pushed even further into Iraq’s corner.
The potential dangers: Eventually, Syria could open up its oilpipeline with Iraq, look the other way as Damascus-based terrorgroups help Hussein get the equipment needed for nonconventionalweapons, and otherwise ally itself with Iraq. That would create newthreats to Israel’s eastern front, the United States and worldstability.
None of this means that the United States should prod Israel totake steps that compromise its security, or that the PalestinianAuthority and Syria do not bear major responsibility for the currentimpasse. Moreover, Israel’s implementation of further redeploymentfrom the West Bank and its commitment to a settlement freeze, coupledwith stepped-up efforts by the Palestinian Authority to thwartterror, won’t by themselves stop Saddam Hussein. But making thesemoves as soon as possible, and renewing Israeli-Syrian negotiations,will deprive him of an important source of prestige and influence,and make it harder for him to wreak havoc.
Ofra Bengio is a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University and aspecialist on Iraq. UCLA Professor Steven L. Spiegel is the directorof Israel Policy Forum’s “Peace Pulse” project, a quarterly index ofleading Middle East peace process indicators.
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