Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Israel, Iraq, and the Palestinians – As the U.S. Moves Toward War

Filed under: Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad, Iraq, Israel, Israeli Security, Jordan, Palestinians, Peace Process, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 9    October 21, 2002

  • Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon realized in 1991 that if Jordan were Palestine, Iraqi forces could be deployed very close to Israel’s border.

  • A number of Israeli leaders felt that Israeli deterrence was damaged by the policy of restraint in 1991. If Israel did not react to the use of gas or chemical weapons against it, then the lessons of the Holocaust would be meaningless.

  • Israel need not respond only in western Iraq. There are hundreds of strategic targets in Iraq.

  • After the war in Afghanistan, al Qaeda members took refuge in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, while quite a few went to the Ein Hilwe refugee camp in Lebanon via Syria.

  • Al Qaeda members reached Iraq as well. Palestinians who trained at the al Quds camp north of Baghdad reported seeing a number of al Qaeda people.


Confrontation with Iraq

History in the Middle East often repeats itself. Back in 1991, during the first intifada, we wondered if the Palestinians would try to take advantage of the situation in the Gulf. Now we are quite aware that this might happen again. The first intifada actually ended because of the outcome of the Gulf War, and because of the American decision to take the parties into the Madrid Conference. We are facing almost a similar situation nowadays.

There are also a number of important differences between the 1991 Gulf War and today: Many people say that because Ariel Sharon is prime minister, Israel’s response will be very tough in response to an Iraqi attack. The prime minister of Israel in 1991 was Yitzhak Shamir, known for his hard-line approach to security, yet Shamir objected very strongly to any independent Israeli military operation against Iraq in 1991. Even when Iraqi missiles with conventional warheads hit Israel, he insisted that Israel did not have to intervene. Defense Minister Moshe Arens sided with those in the Israeli army, and the air force in particular, who proposed an Israeli military strike against Iraq. Israeli Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Shomron thought completely differently from Arens, and I believe he was the one who swayed Shamir’s thinking to refrain from attacking Iraq.

Israel’s current defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was born in Iraq, in Basra. The current chief of staff, Gen. Moshe Ayalon, regards Palestinian terror rather than Iraq as the main threat to Israel today. On the other hand, he believes that Israel can cope well enough with the Iraqi threat today. He does not minimize the threat, but believes it can be handled successfully without a need to initiate or act independently.

Since 1991 there has been a significant change in Ariel Sharon’s attitude toward the Kingdom of Jordan. In the past, Sharon’s conception was that “Jordan is Palestine,” namely, that the territorial solution to the Palestinian problem lies in Jordan more than in the West Bank. Today he no longer uses that formula. The Jordanian regime has assumed a greater importance for Sharon since the Gulf War, when he and Prime Minister Shamir realized that if Jordan was Palestine, Iraqi forces could be deployed very close to Israel’s border.


A Policy of Caution

Israel is not looking for a military confrontation with Iraq. Israel’s government supports the American approach and is not looking for a direct confrontation with the Iraqis. Nor does Israel desire to disrupt the operational plans of the United States.

In 1991, Shamir was convinced that Israel had to avoid being accused of disrupting the Arab coalition that the United States had assembled to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Today there really isn’t any coalition. There are certain understandings between the United States and a number of Arab countries, including Egypt. Israel must handle the situation with proper caution in the next few weeks in order to avoid a trap set by Iraq and its allies, especially the Palestinians who would goad Israel into a large-scale military action and thereby disrupt U.S. operational plans against Iraq.

Israel has been very careful in reaction to Hizballah’s escalation in Lebanon with the Wazzani River water diversion. Israel is quite concerned that the water grab may be a negative precedent along other borders in the future. Yet Israel has been very careful not to fall into the Hizballah trap. For example, the minister of defense has not visited the region in order not to raise tension there.

When it came to Israel’s furious reaction to the suicide bomber on a Tel Aviv bus on September 19, the decision-making process was not as controlled as it was regarding Lebanon. The Israeli decision to move on the Muqata, Arafat’s headquarters, was a bad compromise. There were other alternatives. One was the expulsion of Arafat; it didn’t happen. Another was to go into Gaza. Indeed, many diplomats asked: “Why go to Ramallah and not against the Hamas?” or “Why not go after the Islamic Jihad and those who claimed responsibility for the bus bombing?” I personally am very much against a ground military move in the Gaza Strip, which could be very tough, abrasive, and result in many casualties.

This is not the end of the debate over expelling Arafat. The decision was made to besiege him once again, to try and take out the wanted men, and to begin the destruction of his headquarters. Anger was leading the decision-making. It was clear that the Americans would not like it. Keep in mind that the Americans supported Operation Defensive Shield and the following operation which actually brought about the reoccupation of the West Bank. The U.S. didn’t criticize Israel.


The Question of Deterrence

One important factor that would seriously influence Israel’s decision if attacked by Iraq is the question of deterrence. From Israel’s point of view, the way the Gulf War ended in 1991 was unprecedented in many respects, especially if viewed against the backdrop of the country’s military history. This was the first time that Israel did not react to repeated violent attacks. It has always been an accepted concept in Israeli strategic thinking that in the Middle East, inaction in the face of attacks only invites more attacks. Silence will always be interpreted by the aggressor as a sign of weakness. Restraint is not viewed as a mark of strength.

The end of the Gulf War gave rise to a debate on the damage done to Israeli deterrence by the decision not to respond, even if it had been the correct decision. Defense Minister Arens and former president of Israel and former air force commander Ezer Weizman claimed that Israel’s deterrence had been shattered. When the war ended, the Israeli Air Force promptly performed a fly-over of western Iraq (the Americans became very nervous), to send a signal that “we are here” and “we made a mistake by not attacking you for many reasons, but we are around.”

Today, the feeling is that restraint after another Iraqi strike would be a serious mistake. Restraint is perceived as inviting more attacks, not just by Iraqis but by others as well. The nature of Israel’s response is not automatic, and Israel’s decision-making will depend upon the type of weapons used against Israel (Iraq has employed chemical weapons twice in the past), the number of casualties and type of damage, and the need to coordinate with the Americans.

I see no likelihood that Israel would not react to the use of unconventional weapons against it. Israel will not wait for other governments to condemn Iraq or for others to take action on Israel’s behalf. If Israel does not react to the use of chemical weapons against it, then the lessons of the Holocaust would be meaningless. In this matter, Israel needs to be absolutely firm.

I doubt that Israel would automatically exercise military retaliation in response to an attack by missiles with conventional warheads which inflict little damage or drop into the sea, as happened in 1991. However, if an attack by conventional weapons inflicts many casualties and real damage, I would expect that Israel would retaliate.

From an operational point of view, Israel need not respond only in western Iraq, from where the Iraqis had launched missiles during the Gulf War. There are hundreds of strategic targets in Iraq and we know quite well what is going on there.

While the shortest flight path eastward toward Iraq would require Israel to fly over Jordan, this is not the only route. In 1981, Israel reached the Iraqi reactor by flying over a tiny part of Jordanian territory and immediately penetrating into Saudi Arabia. King Hussein was in Aqaba at the time and saw the planes, as did other Jordanians. The king asked one of his officers to call the Iraqis and tell them that he saw something strange – Israeli aircraft taking off near Aqaba and flying east – and he wanted to draw this to their attention. But the Jordanian officer was too slow in making the call, and he was later fired by the king.

In case of a war, the Jordanian question becomes quite a delicate matter that needs to be considered carefully by the government. Saddam Hussein is able to operate in Jordan in various forms in reaction to an American attack, and Israel cannot ignore the dangers should Saddam try to undermine the Jordanian regime in one way or another. They don’t necessarily have to use missiles or airplanes; they can also use terrorists crossing the border from Jordan, and we have to be ready for this.

In the event of an American campaign against Iraq, I expect the Syrians to act very cautiously. Hizballah and the Palestinians may be less restrained, however, and we have to be very careful how we react. It is not just a question of being right, it’s a question of being wise.


Al Qaeda is Regrouping

Al Qaeda is regrouping in the region after the war in Afghanistan. Its members have taken refuge in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and quite a few reached the Ein Hilwe camp in Lebanon via Syria. A few al Qaeda members have gone to the region of Kurdistan near the border of Iran, not far from Halabja, where they tested chemical weapons. A few were arrested by the Syrians, which may be part of the cooperation we hear about between the Syrians and the Americans. There are some old Syrian connections with al Qaeda: bin Laden’s wife, Nagwa, and one of his sons, Omer, were in Syria.

A few al Qaeda members have reached Iraq as well, as we learned from Palestinians who were arrested last month as they crossed the bridges from Jordan to Israel. These Palestinians had received military training in the al Quds training camp north of Baghdad, where they reported seeing a number of al Qaeda people.


Prospects for Change

If the Americans win quickly, there is a chance for a different Middle East (but not a “new Middle East”). I don’t believe we will see a democratic Iraqi government emerge immediately afterwards, but if there is any chance for the Middle East, the Iraqis have to be integrated into the regional process. Iraq is an economic engine and it is very important not only for Jordan but also for the Syrians and the Egyptians. If there is to be a regional conference in the future, the Iraqis should be there.

Recognizing that Iraq has a role to play in the future could help bring the Palestinians back into the negotiating process. A regime change in Iraq could also lead to pressure not just on the Syrians but also on the Iranians to stop the flow of money and weaponry to Hizballah, Islamic Jihad, and other groups. However, winning the war against the current Iraqi regime is a precondition for these changes.


How Do We Define a Victory?

How do we define a victory? If Saddam remains in power after the war, if the war is prolonged, if the Americans have to occupy parts of Iraq and stay there too long, if there are many civilian casualties or the Americans suffer many casualties, then that is not a victory.

A victory in Iraq means:

  • Putting an end to the Iraqi unconventional weapons program;
  • Destroying the group which runs the regime and their main security apparatus – about 100 men;
  • A short war that keeps Iraq as one unified state;
  • Not destroying the Iraqi infrastructure completely because the Iraqis will need it in the future.

*     *     *

This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on the author’s presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 30 September 2002.