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April 2003 Israel News News Review

Jerusalem • 4/28/2003


Although happy that political and military leaders are watching out for them, the already-too-traumatized Israeli public was extremely relieved that the worst government fears and concerns about the war in nearby Iraq were not realized. No Scud missiles were fired at the small country during the month-long conflict, chemical or otherwise, nor were any Iraqi drone aircraft flown this way. Only one major Palestinian terror attack took place inside of an Israeli city, which left dozens injured in the coastal town of Netanya on March 30th. The Damascus-based Islamic Jihad group carried out the atrocity as a “gift” to the Iraqi people. Several other suicide bombers were intercepted en route to conduct deadly assaults. The border with Lebanon remained relatively quiet, despite two occasions when radical Shiite Hizbullah forces fired anti-aircraft shells into the skies over northern Israel.

Israeli officials thanked American, British and Australian coalition forces for their skill and dedication in scouring western Iraq for surface-to-surface missiles and launchers during the month-long war, especially elite Australian units. They also publicly rejoiced that Saddam Hussein and his evil cronies were toppled from power, and expressed hopes for a safer Middle East as a consequence. The Israeli public was extremely grateful that the tyrant who terrorized them in 1991 with repeated missile attacks, and who funded Palestinian terror groups over the years, was apparently no longer in a position to threaten them, or anyone else. Officials particularly hailed the United States government for providing over 700 skilled military personnel to man several Patriot missile batteries in three locations around the country; sent to Israel to help intercept any incoming Iraqi Scuds.


Being part of an ancient people group that has experienced persecution during virtually every generation, Israel’s Jewish leaders generally expressed only guarded optimism, if much at all, that Saddam’s fall would actually help reform the backwards Middle East. The most positive projections for the future came from former prime minister and Labour party leader Shimon Peres, who shared a Nobel peace prize with PLO leader Yasser Arafat and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for securing the Oslo peace accord in 1993. He opined that the liberation of Iraq from Saddam’s bloody clutches could lead to a financially prosperous “new Middle East” rooted in personal freedoms and Western-style democracy. However, some pundits noted that he had made similar forecasts after the preliminary Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement was signed on the White House lawn in September 1993, only to see the Oslo process collapse into deadly violence a few years later.

Current PM Ariel Sharon said he thought Saddam’s downfall improved chances for positive change in the region, and especially for real peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He pointed out that the Iraqi despot had been a major benefactor of Palestinian terror groups over the years, and expressed the hope that Saddam’s elimination would thus weaken those groups. But he also noted that Arafat, a close ally of the Iraqi dictator, continues to call the shots inside the Palestinian Authority. He also warned that Israel still has many other enemies in the region, including the despotic regimes that run Iran, Syria, and Libya. He said all three countries currently possess weapons of mass destruction, and noted that Iran and Libya are working hard to develop nuclear warheads. He also added Saudi Arabia to Israel’s enemies list, saying the autocratic Saud family monarchy continues to finance groups working for Israel’s destruction.


In the wake of the successful US-led campaign to topple Saddam’s regime, Israeli political and military leaders are wondering what type of government will arise in its place. Will it be a Western-leaning democracy that makes peace with Jerusalem and brings light to neighboring Islamic countries? Will it agree to pump oil directly to the Jewish State, as some officials hope, and thus eliminate the current need to import large quantities from Russia? Or will it be a government that retains traditional Iraqi hostility towards “infidel” Israel, and wariness of the “crusader” West? Or will the new Iraqi regime be something in between, like most of the Gulf sheikdoms? These are hardly academic questions to Israeli leaders, given that Iraq has participated in several Arab wars against the Jewish State, and is the second largest Arab country in the region with enormous oil resources.

Israeli experts on Iraq are divided over their predictions concerning what to expect in the shattered country. The most positive echo Shimon Peres, pointing out that the Iraqi people are relatively well educated compared to most regional Arabs, and therefore could quickly adopt a relatively open and inclusive form of government. They say the desert country’s vast underground petroleum supplies should help it rapidly recover from the extensive war damage of recent weeks, and the severe looting and widespread vandalism that followed it. It may take a bit longer for a post-Saddam Iraq to make peace with Israel, but that could come fairly soon as well.


However, a majority of Israeli Mideast experts are less optimistic about the immediate future of Iraq, and the positive impact that Saddam’s demise may have on the Islamic heartland. They note that the country was an extremely artificial creation to begin with, given that Great Britain drew its arbitrary borders after World War I for mainly oil-based reasons. The three main groups that were thrust together by calligraphers in London—the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites—have never shown much historic love or tolerance for each other. They have little experience or natural inclination toward the Western-style democracy that President George W. Bush says he expects to emerge in their patch-quilt country.

More importantly, the Arab countries that surround Iraq—Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—are all run by autocratic monarchies or regimes. Jordan and Kuwait are among the most enlightened in their forms of government (in Mideast terms), but are still not eager to see a vibrant democracy emerge in neighboring Iraq, which would show up their less than democratic administrations. Saudi Arabia is thought to be even more fearful of a full participatory democracy headquartered in Baghdad, given that its extended ruling family is both very wealthy and seriously corrupt.

The darkest projections envision an Islamic fundamentalist regime emerging out of the ashes in Iraq. This seems entirely plausible, if not likely, to many Israeli experts. They note that a majority of Iraqis, at least 60%, are Shiite Muslims who were severely oppressed by Saddam’s Sunni-based government. Many are eager to see a Shiite Islamic theocracy emerge in their land, which might pose a danger to the small Christian community (around 5% of the total population), and also to the larger Sunni minority that has ruled Iraq for many decades.

The largest single Iraqi Shiite movement is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), headed by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al Hakim. He has been a close ally of the extremist Shiite clerics that have ruled neighboring Iran since 1979. Although US military leaders announced early on in the war that Al Hakim had given his blessing to the allied operation in Iraq, his deputy made clear in mid-April that the group is now demanding that Western forces leave the country forthwith.

The son of the late Shiite clerical leader, Ayatollah Al Sistani, echoed this call. He complained in mid-April that, “We didn’t ask the Americans to come to Iraq. There shouldn’t be any occupation authority here, even for just one day.” To show their opposition to Washington’s plans to administer the country for months to come, or even for several years, the SCIRI group boycotted the first post-war government building conference designed to set up an interim government and hold free elections.

Israeli Mideast expert Barry Rubin, an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of the US-led operation to oust Saddam, noted that the Bush administration had worked overtime to build good relations with Shiite SCIRI leaders. Now that Saddam is gone, he writes that the large movement obviously prefers to nurture its traditional close ties with Iran, and not its new connections to America. He warned that, “Saddam’s dictatorship could be replaced by a SCIRI dictatorship. And it may not bother them a bit if such a bid set off a civil war, devastated the country’s economy, cost thousands of lives and wasted many years.” This is, of course, exactly what happened in Lebanon during the 1980s, where the tyrannical Hizbullah militia, supported by Syria, took over most of southern Lebanon after Arafat’s brutal PLO forces were driven out by Israeli troops.

Various Israeli and international experts on Iraq said as the war was winding down that extremist Shiite groups, possibly aided by some Sunni and even Kurdish groups, may be planning to violently push coalition forces out of Iraq in the coming months. Kanan Malkiya, a leading member of the pro-American Iraqi National Congress and an expert on Saddam, pointed out that “local defense and police forces linked to the Islamists are emerging in many parts of Iraq, and may become full militias if we don’t stop them.” He recalled that this occurred in Lebanon, where local Shiite Muslims quickly went from welcoming in Israeli soldiers and American peacekeeping forces in mid-1982, only to later attack them in the guise of the Shiite Amal and Hizbullah militias.


All experts agree that the fiercest regional objectors to the emergence of parliamentary democracy in post-war Iraq are Syria and Iran. Each is among the most totalitarian and repressive countries anywhere on the planet. Each has obvious reasons for thwarting the declared US plan to promote Western-style democracy in the mainly Muslim Middle East. As noted above, Shiite-ruled Iran has significant, well entrenched allies inside Iraq that are expected to work with their partners in Teheran to halt any moves toward a truly free government in Baghdad. Syria also has many political allies inside Iraq, especially members of the Sunni-based, two million-strong Baath political party. Run by another wing of the pan-Arab nationalist party, the regime in Damascus is a classic police state that rules by means of fear and intimidation, like Saddam’s Baathist regime did for several decades.

The very last thing Syrian leaders want to see is a freewheeling Western-style society flourishing just over their eastern border. This would not have been as big a threat in the years before radio and television waves traveled unhindered across national borders. But in today’s world, such a government right next door—speaking the same Arabic language and sharing the same religious and cultural backgrounds—is anathema. Therefore many Israeli Mideast experts believe the regime in Damascus will do everything in its power to hinder the emergence of such a threatening government, just as it has stood in the way of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that would remove one of the excuses for oppressing its own people.

President Bush and other senior US leaders made clear during April that they were not amused by Syrian military and verbal support for Saddam’s dying regime and alleged sheltering of some deposed Iraqi officials, plus its development of chemical weapons (Israeli officials believe that Saddam smuggled some of his own mass destruction weapons into Syria in the last few years). They strongly hinted that the despotic Assad regime might be the next military target if it did not cooperate with US effort to topple Saddam and set up a stable post-war government. Syrian officials initially adopted a belligerent tone in response to America’s concerns, but modified their hostile rhetoric after Saddam fell from power. Despite this, Israeli leaders said that the Baathist regime in Damascus would probably need to be replaced before any lasting stability can be brought to the crisis-prone Middle East, however that occurs.


Israeli officials are nervously watching out for expected international post war attempts to impose a final peace accord—featuring a Palestinian state—on the world’s only Jewish country. The so-called “Road Map for a Two State Solution” is due to be officially presented in the coming days by the proposal’s “quartet” of sponsors, the US, EU, UN and Russia.

Warning the Israeli public that “painful land concessions” would be necessary in order to make lasting peace with the Palestinians, including the abandonment of some Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria like Shiloh and Beit El, Ariel Sharon repeated earlier statements that he welcomes the Road Map plan. But he added that he wants some 16 changes made to it. The Israeli premier especially objects to the plan’s affirmation of Arafat’s demand that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees be allowed to move to ancestral homes inside of Israel’s pre-1967 borders, which Israeli officials say would spell the end of the Jewish State. Apparently attempting to quell widespread Arab anger over the “invasion and occupation” of Iraq, some quartet sponsors, especially the British government, insist that no significant alterations will be allowed.

As has occurred many times before, it seemed in late April that the Palestinians themselves might scuttle the latest peace moves. Arafat balked at several cabinet appointments made by Mahmoud Abbas, his new handpicked “prime minister” and longtime PLO deputy. This forced a postponement of attempts to unveil a reformed Palestinian government, as demanded by President Bush and other world leaders. Sharon has made clear he will not even consider implementing the Road Map until a new government—sans Arafat—is established. He and other Israeli leaders quietly complain about an apparent double standard when it comes to the terror-supporting Palestinian leader, whose personal and political record is quite similar to Saddam’s.

Facing more political difficulties ahead, and undoubtedly additional terrorist violence as well, it is comforting to recall that the Bible reveals that, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Psalm 3:8).


DAVID DOLAN is an author and journalist who lived and worked in Israel for over three decades, beginning in 1980.

  • HOLY WAR FOR THE PROMISED LAND (Broadman & Holman), his latest book, is an overview of the history of the Israel and of the bitter Arab-Israeli conflict that rages there, plus some autobiographical details about the author’s experiences living in the land since 1980. It especially examines the important role that militant Islam plays in the conflict.
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