Israel stands at the precipice of a strategic breakdown. But first, the good news.
The Bush administration's determination to topple Saddam Hussein's regime is by definition a good thing for Israel. Saddam Hussein has repeatedly expressed his dedication to the goal of physically destroying the State of Israel. A nuclear-armed Iraq is a threat that Israel cannot tolerate. Clearly, if the US were not itself determined to go to war to prevent Saddam from achieving nuclear capabilities, Israel, as it did in 1981, would have to act on its own to prevent this, no doubt at tremendous cost.
Aside from the removal of an Iraqi nuclear threat, a US victory can have a positive influence on the region as a whole from which Israel could be the most direct beneficiary. A moderate, Western-oriented successor government in Baghdad may moderate the policies of the Arab world in general. Under the direct influence of a Pax Americana, Arab states and Iran may be forced to redefine their national interest as one of appeasing Washington by diminishing their support for terrorism and the eradication of Israel, lest the wrath of the US be redirected against their own regimes.
With these projections, it is little wonder that there is a general consensus, encompassing such unlikely bedfellows as former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, throwing its full support behind a US military offensive in Iraq. A US-led campaign against Iraq is viewed by many as a refutation of the claim that "there is no such thing as a free lunch."
Here is Israel's strategic partner and protector, the US, poised to take out one of the regimes that most threatens Israel, and all that we are asked is to sit on the sidelines and keep quiet.
All of this is well and good as far as it goes. And yet, there are two central potential long-term dangers for Israel emanating from the gathering US strike on Iraq both of which must be addressed immediately, and before any US action is taken.
The first of those dangers is a loss of our deterrence. Today our diplomatic and security echelons debate whether we can risk not responding to an Iraqi attack launched during a US-led campaign. Some argue that our decision not to retaliate against Iraqi Scud missile attacks during the Gulf War did not cause long-term damage to our deterrent strength and, therefore, inaction in the face of a future attack would also not be detrimental in the long run.
Others claim that a lack of response in the case of such an attack would render us more dependent on US security guarantees and degrade our strategic value in the eyes of the US government.
Such a development, they argue, will damage our credibility in demanding that the US preserve the IDF's qualitative edge against our neighbors' military capabilities. If the US is going to war to protect us, they warn, the US can reasonably ask why we should be concerned about retaining our independent ability to emerge victorious from a fight we will not need to wage? Proponents of attack also point out that we cannot afford running the risk that our neighbors may interpret lack of action under fire as weakness and so, in order to maintain face, we cannot simply absorb Iraqi strikes.
As today's Jerusalem Post poll shows, public opinion is firmly in the interventionist camp. The public is not interested in forfeiting our right to self-defense in exchange for a US defense umbrella. The message to the government from all of this is that we must ensure that under no circumstance will the US feel that it has the right to decide for us whether or not we can respond to an Iraqi attack. In the absence of such an understanding, we may find ourselves isolated and dependent on an America unwilling to allow us to fight our own battles.
The second strategic danger arising from a successful US offensive against Iraq is the specter of a US-dictated settlement of our war with the Palestinians. In the months preceding the Gulf War, the Shamir government went our of its way to prevent the first Bush administration from linking Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At least publicly, president George Bush the elder and secretary of state James Baker were careful to maintain that they were not linking the two.
In stark contrast, today the US is clearly publicly linking the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime. In his address to the UN General Assembly last Thursday, President George W. Bush twice mentioned "Palestine" and stated "America stands committed to an independent and democratic Palestine." The fact that the so-called "Quartet" the US, UN, EU and Russia met this week to work out a "road map" for the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine at the same time that the UN Security Council was debating what to do about Iraq is further indication that the US supports, at least publicly, the direct linkage of "Palestine" with Iraq.
This state of affairs would not necessarily be detrimental if Israel and the US had reached an understanding of what sort of settlement should be reached between Israel and the Palestinians. However, no such understanding exists.
While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaks obliquely of the need for long-term interim agreements, Peres explained this week in New York and Washington that he supports a return to the offer that Ehud Barak made to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000. That offer of course calls for the division of Jerusalem, the transfer of sovereignty over the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians, the establishment of a sovereign Palestine in all of the Gaza Strip and some 95 percent of the West Bank, the uprooting of more than 100 communities in the West Bank and Gaza, repatriation of some Palestinian refugees to Israel, and transfer of territories inside the Green Line to "Palestine."
Peres, like his ally UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his friends in the EU has been quick to co-opt Bush's "vision" of a two-state solution to strengthen his own claim that the Oslo process is still viable. Reform, in Peres's view can be watered down to cosmetic restructuring of the PA cabinet.
Almost unbelievably, even as Fatah leaders refuted the claim that they had agreed to a cease-fire, and Nabil Shaath, Arafat's personal envoy at the conference, obscenely offered to encourage Palestinians to stop killing "civilians" inside the Green Line, while continuing to kill them outside it, in exchange for an IDF withdrawal from towns in the West Bank, Peres stood on the General Assembly podium and praised Fatah for its call for reform of the PA. He told the world body, "I look upon these words [calling for reform] as a first dawn of a different season. We hope it is the spring."
Since assuming office, Sharon has prevented a cabinet discussion that would lead to a determination of the country's long-term strategic interests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The logic of forestalling debate was clear. Sharon's unity government lacks even minimal agreement on the definition of those interests. Until now, in order to ensure Labor's support for the government's campaign against Palestinian terrorism, it made sense to delay such debate.
But today, with the country facing a real prospect of an internationally imposed solution, the logic of the national unity government is unraveling. In the face of an imminent US strike on Iraq, which is directly linked by the US itself to the issue of Palestinian sovereignty, the time has come for our government to sit down with the Americans and explain, precisely, what it regards as a Palestinian entity it can live with. This discussion must delineate the borders it demands and the exact nature of the Palestinian political entity that it can accept.
The US is now under strong pressure from every quarter to force a settlement that will include a total withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and a division of Jerusalem. Peres, in a last ditch effort to validate the Oslo process and reconstitute his reputation as a visionary, is doing all he can to add his voice to the choir.
If the prime minister is unable to mount a campaign to achieve US acceptance of our strategic interests in the West Bank and Gaza, the US will no doubt go along with the rest of the world and Peres and enforce our surrender of the territories to a "reformed" PLO regime.
The time has come for clarity of strategic purpose in our government. There is no doubt that the coming US war in Iraq can be a great opportunity.
But even in the best of circumstances, clear and strong leadership is necessary to ensure that these opportunities are not squandered. Rather than enjoy the advantages of a Middle East free of an Iraqi nuclear threat, we are liable to suffer a strategic fiasco. In the absence of proper coordination with the US by clear-thinking leaders, at the end of the Iraq campaign the country may find itself shrunken, without defensible borders, and dependent as never before on the goodwill of an outside power.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post