A decade ago, Israel helped maintain Arab support for the war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by not responding to several Iraqi missile attacks. U.S. President George W. Bush, who met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday, was expected to urge him privately to hold fire yet again in the event of another war with Iraq and any subsequent attacks against Israel. But as RFE/RL reports, Bush emerged from the talks with a completely different message.
Washington, 17 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, as the United States military was driving Saddam Hussein's invading forces from Kuwait, Iraq responded by launching 39 Scud missiles against Israel. In reply, Israel -- the military giant of the Middle East -- did nothing.
Although it has become conventional wisdom in Israel that its non-action weakened the image of Israeli deterrence in the Arab world, its behavior was seen as a key to holding together the Arab part of the international coalition that backed the American-led military effort against Iraq.
Had Israel retaliated -- so the thinking goes -- Arab countries would have withdrawn their support for the war. Some experts say Israeli retaliation could have had far worse consequences, sparking a larger Middle East conflict in which Arab states ganged up on Israel.
As U.S. President George W. Bush ponders possible new military action against Iraq, the question of how Israel will react to possible retaliatory attacks by Saddam Hussein is becoming more urgent.
Unlike Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's leader during the Gulf War, current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will retaliate aggressively if Baghdad responds to a U.S.-led attack to disarm Iraq by lobbing more missiles at the Jewish state.
Yesterday, Bush and Sharon held talks at the White House. Media reports predicted Bush would ask Sharon to tone down his rhetoric about firing back at Iraq if attacked. But after the talks, Bush appeared to be the one on the rhetorical offensive. "If Iraq attacks Israel tomorrow, I would assume the prime minister would respond. He's got a desire to defend himself. Our hope is that the Iraqi regime will disarm peacefully."
Sharon did not comment on the matter, and details of the talks between the two leaders were not divulged. A senior White House official later played down Bush's comments, suggesting the U.S. would prefer Israeli restraint.
But Bush, pressed by reporters on what the U.S. would do if Israel were attacked again by Baghdad or by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon -- which are backed by Syria and Iran -- suggested that Washington would extend the fight to any country from which an attack on Israel emanated: "We certainly want to work with Israel. And we'll make it clear to Hezbollah, nations housing Hezbollah, whether in the context of Iraq or not, we expect there to be no attacks. This is terrorist activity, and we will fight terror wherever terror exists."
Bush reiterated that he has made no decision to use force against Iraq and is patiently awaiting the outcome of talks in the United Nations Security Council. Washington wants the Security Council to pass a tough, new resolution urging Iraq to comply with all previous UN resolutions or face the use of force.
Earlier yesterday, after signing a congressional resolution granting him the power to use force against Baghdad if necessary, Bush said the only way Iraq can avoid war is to give up its arms of mass destruction. "Hopefully, we can do this without military action," Bush said.
Bush was expected to urge Sharon to tone down his tough action against Palestinians. With world attention on Iraq, and keen to win as much Arab support as possible for any eventual offensive against Iraq, the U.S. has been pressing Israel to ease up on its Palestinian curfews and blockades.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday that it is Israel's responsibility to soften some of these restrictions, which he said hinder humanitarian relief to Palestinians.
Israeli officials have said the U.S. fears that continued tough Israeli moves against the Palestinians could jeopardize American efforts to build Arab support for possible war against Iraq.
Clovis Maksoud, who for 10 years was the Arab League's representative in Washington, scoffs at the suggestion that there is any support in the Arab world to be won for the United States.
Now a professor at Washington's American University, Maksoud tells RFE/RL that a new war against Iraq and the conflict of 1991 are completely different. He says most Arabs saw the U.S. defense of Kuwait as completely legitimate, since Iraq had invaded.
But now, Maksoud says, Arab anger at American support for Israel, despite its tough policies and occupation of Palestinian areas, is running at an all-time high.
Moreover, Maksoud says most Arabs blame the U.S. for continued UN economic sanctions on Iraq, which he says are hurting the Iraqi people. And Arabs, even if they do not like Saddam, do not see a legitimate reason for war against Iraq this time around: "The American attempt at telling Sharon to cool it off a little bit, in order that we can tell the Arabs that they must support us -- I mean, we're underdeveloped, but we're not mentally retarded. There is so much anger now in the Arab world that I don't know -- I don't want to think about the outcome."
Still, Maksoud says he believes Sharon is unlikely to respond to an Iraqi attack, even though he says that Washington, as Bush's comments suggest, would likely accept retaliation as legitimate self-defense.
Judith Kipper agrees. Kipper, co-chair of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, makes this observation: "I think it would be very, very problematic to have a coalition of like-minded countries or something under the UN or whatever, and have Israel participate in the overthrow of an Arab regime. And the Israelis know that, and I suspect that Israel has no interest in participating in this, unless they're hit with nonconventional weapons, in which case nobody can ask them not to respond."
The U.S., which has kept a low profile in recent months on the Middle East crisis, is set to send its top Mideast envoy to the region tomorrow. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will discuss the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, as well as a possible war against Iraq, during his two-week tour. His trip will include stops in 10 Arab countries, as well as Israel and the West Bank.