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Israel’s future on the line in Iraq

By Frank Smyth

Posted January 26, 2007

For all the talk about Iraq and whether we should send more troops, one subject seems almost too delicate to bring up: Israel. What happens to the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East if the Bush administration loses Iraq to a wider war marked by more anarchy and violence?

The administration aspired to remake Iraq in a Jeffersonian image that would have left the nation more friendly to us and Israel. But the effort has failed.

Not only is Iraq the site of spreading sectarian violence, but the U.S.-led invasion has made the country a magnet for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups hostile to the United States and Israel. By helping bring Iraq’s long-oppressed Shia majority to power, the administration has, however unwittingly, helped expand the influence of Iran at a time when Iran’s nuclear activities pose a long-term threat to Israel.

Pres. George W. Bush seems convinced that his short-term “surge” will help stem Iraq’s rising tide of bloodletting. But neither he nor his advisers have articulated what might come next. Bush has already rejected the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s recommendations to pursue several diplomatic initiatives at once, including sustained peace-building efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.

Arab leaders have been making it clear to U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on her latest trip to the region, that they will not back U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq without seeing progress toward a Palestinian state. So if the administration’s one big last military push fails, the United States will have few options left in the region. Pushing again on Israeli-Palestinian tensions would be conceivable but would most likely be seen as too little, too late.

Israelis will continue to live in an area where the forces on the rise in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere are not stable, pro-Western governments but sectarian militias and other irregular armed groups — many of whom hate each other and their own states, but nearly all of whom oppose Israel.

Of course, Israel can defend itself, with the best-trained, best-armed military in the region, no doubt armed with nuclear weapons. The country’s willingness to use its strength for rapid strikes inside enemy territory has been an effective deterrent against even the most hostile states such as Syria, which have easily identifiable targets like military bases and electrical plants.

But non-state movements are far less vulnerable to retaliatory attacks, as Israel learned last year after its air strikes in Lebanon failed to do much discernable damage to Hezbollah while Hezbollah militia forces were firing rockets into Israel.

Such irregular armed forces breed in a climate of resistance. Thriving on perceptions of their own victimization, they often gain politically, as Hezbollah did from its military defeats in Lebanon following Israel’s bombing. Well-armed powers have discovered, most recently in Iraq and Lebanon, that neutralizing the appeal of such militias requires at least as much savvy as arms.

In the past, Israel has quietly gained as its enemies fought each other, notably during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. But what applies to states does not necessarily apply to irregular armed movements. Take the clashes today in the West Bank and Gaza between Fatah and Hamas Palestinians. Instead of weakening Israel’s enemies, the fighting may end up undermining moderates such as Palestinian Pres. Mahmoud Abbas.

In a broader struggle between Sunnis and Shia in the Persian Gulf region, the two warring Muslim sects may each find opportunities to attack Israel, to bolster their jihadist credentials. Though Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders are ultra-conservative Sunnis who have long derided Shia for deviating from the Muslim faith, some al-Qaeda figures came to Hezbollah’s defense as it attacked Israel, calling the Shia fighters Muslim allies in a common struggle.

The same kind of cynical logic may help explain the repugnant language of Iranian Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His conference in Tehran promoting Holocaust denial helped show other anti-Israeli Muslims the Middle East’s largest Shia-led state is no less hostile to Israel than are many Sunni Muslims.

This means avoiding further destabilization of the Middle East is in the interest not only of the United States, but of Israel. This is a fact the Bush administration would do well to address. It is betting against the odds that its one-track military policy will work. If it fails, Israel could be in greater danger than ever.

 

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist and co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict, is writing a book on the 1991 uprisings against Saddam Hussein. This column originally appeared in Newsday, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.