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

Israel’s Strategy after the Iraq War

Filed under: Hizbullah, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Israeli Security, Peace Process, Syria, The Middle East, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 24    April 16, 2003

  • In seeking democratization for the Middle East, the U.S. sees as its models Japan and Germany following World War II, both defeated in war and reconstructed in its aftermath.

  • Let us remember that Israel paved the way for the Americans by halting Iraq’s nuclear plans in 1981, a demonstration of strategic cooperation between Israel and the U.S.

  • Israel has long feared the prospect of a Syrian-Iraqi coalition. In 1973, the last-minute entrance of Iraqi forces almost saved the Golan Heights for the Syrians. Removing the threat of an eastern coalition alters the entire Israeli position regarding a war from the east.

  • While some Arabs are beginning to understand that terror and force lead nowhere, the forced adoption of the road map means regression, broadcasting to the Arabs that terror will be rewarded.


America’s Goals for Iraq: Disarmament, Stabilization, and Democratization

An examination of the real reason the United States is going to war indicates that it is not purely to disarm Saddam Hussein and eradicate his stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The subsequent stage is the stabilization of Iraq – a formidable task – given the frictions inside the society and the country as a whole. Absent the stabilization of Iraq, the consequences of the war could be disruptive for the entire area.


Beyond Iraq

Washington’s horizons extend beyond the stabilization of Iraq, however. Some planners view the war against Iraq as the first step toward revamping the entire Middle East. They believe that the war against terror will take many years and that, ultimately, force alone will not win the battle against terrorism. They claim that the political systems of the Muslim and Arab world must undergo a structural change and that Iraq will exemplify that change, which will occur in its postwar democratization. Even the most naive Americans don’t believe that Iraq is going to be a democracy a year after the war, but they do believe that they can initiate a process that will lead Iraq to democratization in the future.

Thus, Iraq is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is the Middle East, the Arab world, and the Muslim world. Iraq will be the first step in this direction; winning the war against terrorism means structurally changing the entire area. Therefore, this war has ramifications for the area as a whole and, specifically, for Israel and its neighbors.

The current U.S. administration is not a continuation of George Bush, Sr.’s administration, motivated primarily by commercial, oil-related considerations; rather, it is the continuation of the ideologically-motivated Reagan administration. This ideology is reflected in its battle against the “axis of evil” and support for the democratization of the entire area. Its models are Japan and Germany following World War II, both defeated in war and reconstructed in its aftermath. Eastern Europe provides another model, with the democratization of numerous countries after the collapse of the USSR. These historical models are instructive for the Middle East.

The Americans understand that the first step is to disarm Iraq, and after stabilization, which should be the immediate consequence of Iraqi disarmament, there is to be an ideological follow-up in the form of democratization. Hence, the Americans know that ultimately if they win, and the Middle East begins a process of democratization, then nobody will remember the European criticism; history will judge them by the results.


Israel in the “New Middle East”

America’s dream is to build a “New Middle East.” But this time, the New Middle East will be created by an upheaval of the entire system, and not just by signing on an agreement. Should America succeed, a New Middle East will indeed emerge, demanding that Israel formulate its own strategy.

If and when the United States disarms Iraq, Israel’s strategic position will immediately change. First, Israel will no longer face the threat of Iraqi missiles. The Iraqi threat catalyzed Israel’s construction of its home front capability. Because of the Iraqis, Israelis all own gas masks today. Israel expends enormous sums annually to maintain its home front capability and to ensure that the entire population is adequately provided for and equipped.

The elimination of a regime that previously used missiles against Israel is a signal for any missile-equipped regime that plans to use missiles in the future. Let us remember that the war against Iraq transpired after Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s reactor in 1981. In other words, Israel paved the way for the Americans by halting Iraq’s nuclear plans. This clearly demonstrates how strategic cooperation between Israel and the U.S. will lead to the elimination of a regime that posed a threat to the Middle East.


Ramifications for Israel’s Eastern Front

Regime change in Iraq may also free Israel from a second threat, that of classical war on its eastern front. Israel has long feared the prospect of a Syrian-Iraqi coalition, and of having to defend itself in the east in the event of Iraqi forces entering Jordan. Removing the threat of an eastern coalition alters the entire Israeli position regarding a war from the east.

The war in Iraq also has implications for possible future negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel has traditionally required the deployment of significant military forces capable of protecting the country against an attack from the east. In the wake of the current war, Iraq may well become part of a pro-Western bloc, thus fortifying the existing Jordanian buffer. With the Iraqi threat removed, Israel could conceivably adopt a more lenient stance regarding future deployment of forces in the Jordan Valley. Thus, indirectly, an American success in Iraq could affect the way in which Israel would negotiate security arrangements in the eastern part of a potential Palestinian entity. However, the threat of terror is expected to continue and Israel’s need to control the border with Jordan will remain critical.

An American success would also indirectly impact on Syria’s position. Unquestionably, the collapse of the USSR and Syria’s loss of its strategic support led the Syrians increasingly to view Iraq as the key to Syrian strategic depth. Relations between Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad were sour for many years, but the acrimony of old is no longer present, and relations between young Bashir Assad and Saddam Hussein have constantly improved. Elimination of the Iraqi threat, together with the loss of Syrian strategic depth, dictates an Israeli reassessment of the classical Syrian threat, giving it different dimensions. Though Syria will maintain its capability, its situation necessarily changes when the country east of Syria is no longer likely to be in any future coalition with Syria. Thus, another consequence of the war will be the indirect reduction of the Syrian threat. In 1973, the last-minute entrance of Iraqi forces almost saved the Golan Heights for the Syrians. Without Iraqi intervention, Israeli forces would have reached the outskirts of Damascus itself, and the Syrians remember that. Thus, there are positive consequences from the war in Iraq for Israel’s eastern front.

Unfortunately, there is no expectation of change on the Palestinian front as a result of the war. There is no reason to assume that Arafat will change his mind about an agreement with Israel, or that he will become incapable of handling the Palestinian system. Hamas and Islamic Jihad will also remain unaffected by American success. Thus, Palestinian terror can only be reduced by on-the-ground containment, IDF-style, by entering and controlling all areas that accommodate terror and its infrastructure.


The Road Map and its Dangers

Following the war, the Americans may be forcibly steered toward the “road map” by the Europeans and the Arabs. Israel’s coerced adoption of the road map would severely compromise its achievements to date in its war against terrorism, enabling Arafat and the Palestinians to emerge as the big winners of the war in Iraq. American agreement to replace President Bush’s June speech with the road map would reward the Palestinians prior to their having fought and eradicated terror. This would constitute a grave error, for it is only now that we can finally discern the fruits of the Israeli achievements in its war against terror. Besides the victory over terrorism, Israel’s main objective is to make the Arab states understand that they will achieve nothing from Israel through terror.

The road map’s basic logic is that if the Palestinians stop terror, they will receive much of what they want, including an independent state and freezing of settlements. The road map rejects terror as a tool for political gain, and promises to reward the Palestinians if they succeed in halting it. Morally, I don’t see how the Americans can extract Israeli payment for a Palestinian halt to terror. Historically, such a move would be a tragic error. Conceivably, we are at the dawn of a new understanding in the Middle East; some Arabs are beginning to understand that terror and force lead nowhere. A forced adoption of the road map means regression, broadcasting to the Arabs that terror will be rewarded. As such, it is a historical and moral travesty.


What about Palestinian Democratization?

America’s long-range goal for the region may also be the most significant one for its influence on future Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Palestinian community is a prime candidate for democratization. It is better equipped for democracy than Egypt, Jordan, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, for its political system is not entrenched. Nor does it have the problems of Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan, where minorities control the majority. Furthermore, having lived with Israel since 1967, the Palestinians have actually experienced democracy first hand. If the Americans succeed in catalyzing the democratization of Iraq, this could have important ramifications for relations between Israel and the Palestinians. If the process now beginning in Iraq changes the entire Middle East, this could augur well for the Jewish state in the Middle East, which knows how to deal with democracies.


Postwar Challenges for Israel

Israel’s first postwar challenge is to convince America to stand firm against pressure from Europe and the Arab states to adopt the road map. The Palestinians must first be pressured into combating terror and revamping their system. Only then can a real process with Israel begin. The elimination of the terrorists and their leaders is a precondition for any process; any other form of cease-fire leads nowhere, as President Bush stated quite succinctly in his June speech. Hopefully the Americans will maintain this position. Israel’s efforts over the last two and a half years of war have planted the first seeds of change in Palestinian consciousness. Adoption of the road map could reverse all these gains, and Israel could find itself back in a situation in which the Palestinians are convinced that force is their ultimate tool.

Israel’s second post-war challenge is to convince the United States not to stop after Iraq. Otherwise, here in the Middle East the Hizballah will continue to flourish, the Iranians will retain their missiles and their weapons of mass destruction, and Syria will remain as the capital of terrorism. The Islamic Jihad and Hamas both operate from headquarters in Damascus. Iranian munitions to the Hizballah come from Damascus. Syria has given missile systems to Hizballah.

A democratic Iraqi island of peace in an ocean of hostile forces such as Iran, Syria, and the Hizballah will not ensure America’s triumph. Success in Iraq alone is inadequate to ensure victory against terror and success in creating a New Middle East. Democratization in Iraq will not engender parallel changes in other Arab countries as long as they believe that the United States will continue to ignore the remaining dictatorships in the region.


The Threat of Hizballah

America must pressure Syria into withdrawing its support for Hizballah and then crushing it. Amal, the Palestinians, and other organizations gave up their military footholds in Lebanon some years ago, but Hizballah still flourishes there because of the Syrians. Syria could change this situation by disarming Hizballah in no more than two or three weeks. Hizballah has more than twelve thousand Katyusha rockets, including many long-range (70 km) missiles. Israel will not live under a threat from Lebanon extending all the way to Haifa.

Ultimately, the war against Hizballah must be waged by Israel and not America. Israel cannot allow Middle East wars to be fought by the Americans alone. Israel must abide by the principle that guided it during its first years of independence: Israel must defend itself by itself.


Non-Conventional Threats from Syria and Iran

The second long-range threat to Israel is from non-conventional missiles from Syria and Iran. Syria has hundreds of missiles, many of them with chemical warheads. Syria is now the “superpower” of chemical weapons in the Middle East, and in the hands of its weak government this constitutes a real danger to regional stability. Bashir Assad lacks his father’s caution, as seen in the current level of Syrian assistance to Hizballah to build up its forces.

Iran, too, is moving inexorably toward long-range missile capability and nuclear warheads. It is amazing to observe the international atomic energy inspectors visiting Iran, finding huge systems used to enrich uranium, and saying nothing. Israel will have to do whatever is required in order to protect itself from Syrian and Iranian military capabilities.

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Maj. Gen. (res.) Ya’akov Amidror is former head of the IDF’s National Defense College, and former head of the IDF’s research and assessment division, with special responsibility for preparing the National Intelligence Assessment. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 3 March 2003.