Hanging in the balance


Not a day passes without one more sign that the United States is very close to beginning a military operation to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Only this week, French officials said they believed a first strike would come late this summer–months earlier than previously thought. Some Palestinian and Israeli analysts predict that a successful US effort will radically alter the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

To their knees

Palestinians remember three things about the Gulf War of 1991. They remember the Scud missiles falling on Israeli cities while they sat under Israeli-imposed curfews in their homes. They remember that by the time the war was over, Israel had conceived the extensive permit system now used to control Palestinian movement from town to town.

And they remember that the aftermath of the war was a time of great weakness–so much so that their leadership signed peace agreements with Israel that have now disastrously failed.

“Because of the Gulf War and the siege on the PLO, Palestinians were willing to accept terms to participate in the Madrid conference [that were] less than they would have accepted,” explains Palestinian Legislative Council member Ziad Abu Amr. The Palestine Liberation Organization offered ideological support to Iraq, with ruinous results to its Gulf funding and international support. Weakened, the PLO entered the Madrid process, and then secretly negotiated the ill-fated Declaration of Principles. Abu Amr fears that a new US war on Iraq would only repeat that defeat.

“Weakening Iraq through a war would make this leadership more vulnerable to Israeli and American pressures to accept arrangements that it would not accept under normal circumstances,” he says. He is not the only one to think so.

Israeli strategic analysts believe that the defeat of Iraq would remove the nerve of the Palestinian leadership. “I think that one of the reasons for Mr. Arafat’s conduct since the outbreak of the Intifada is his belief that he is supported by the radical elements in the Arab world,” says Shlomo Brom of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. “If these radical elements get a blow–and this is the meaning of success in Iraq–then Arafat will know that he will have no support of any meaningful element in the Arab world and he will change his conduct.”

He then adds, a bit hopefully. “It may even facilitate his replacement.”

While Brom says he wants Palestinians to replace their own leader, some Palestinians fear that an attack on Iraq would be used by the Israeli government to depose Arafat altogether. “What I am afraid of–not only afraid of, I am sure of,” said politics professor Saleh Abdel Jawad in March, “is that when Sharon went [to Washington] in January the Americans told him to just keep things quiet for hitting Iraq. The moment they hit Iraq and succeed, it will not be the same as 1991 and the Madrid conference; it will in fact give the Israelis the green light. I think they will give the Israelis the green light to destroy the Palestinians.”

A different war

It is difficult to imagine Palestinians in a weaker position than they are today. The Israeli army has now reoccupied nearly every West Bank town, annulling the Palestinian Authority’s control in those areas and separating Palestinians from each other through an extensive system of curfews and closures. Dror says that Palestinians should not fear new Israeli clampdowns during a Gulf war–” They are controlling the Palestinians,” he says. “What can change?”

Israel, on the other hand, has only grown more powerful. While Iraq responded to US strikes in Operation Desert Storm by firing Scud missiles into Israeli cities, Israel has developed the only working missile defense system in the world to prepare for a repeat performance. Over the last 10 years, the United States has financed Israel’s $1 billion Arrow ballistic missile defense system, first deployed in 2000. The current US administration has asked Congress for another $66 million over the next five years to help Israel develop the Arrow system for emerging missile threats. Earlier this year, US military officials came to Israel for a simulation of an Iraqi missile attack intercepted by Arrow and Patriot defenses.

Comparatively, analysts say that Iraqi military strength has weakened considerably. The Iraqi missile arsenal was never rebuilt, according to most assessments, and the chances of missile strikes on Tel Aviv are relatively lower. While the United States and Israel are preparing for the possibility that Iraq might use against Israel the kind of non-conventional chemical warfare it has been accused of generating, Brom thinks those chances are slight.

“I am not sure that he will do it,” says Brom of a non-conventional attack by Saddam Hussein. “He knows that he will pay the price for doing it. Because then the Americans are going after him personally,” instead of only seeking to topple his regime. “If he uses a weapon of mass destruction, I don’t think that he will survive personally.”

Still, Israel will be prepared for all scenarios. Foreign news agencies stationed in Israel are already training their staff in handling a chemical attack, outfitting them with hazardous material suits and gas masks. Locked in their homes, Palestinians will once again have to make do.

Sooner, not later

Indeed, Israel has been preparing for the possibility of an American attack on Iraq since the election of George W. Bush and his hawkish administration. When Palestinian-Israeli hostilities erupted in late 2000, however, the conventional wisdom was that Washington would be unable to convince Arab states to go along with military strikes as long as their people were inflamed by nightly news of Palestinian deaths.

Then came September 11. After the Bush administration declared its war on terrorism, targeting first Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then any group believed linked with Al Qaeda, it found that the Arab governments were no longer in a position to argue.

“I have serious doubts about the extent to which we need a coalition,” said Bush advisor Richard Perle in October 2001. “I don’t know what this coalition is, who’s in it, who’s out of it, where you get your membership card. Can you be expelled if you’re not doing certain minimum things? Are the Saudis in it? Are they out of it? The Syrians support terror – are they in, are they out? It’s a very vague concept, and an insubstantial one.”

And so the administration forged ahead. Despite Arab and Muslim sensitivities, the United States managed with relative ease to create a friendly regime in Afghanistan, scatter Al Qaeda and gain new military footholds in Pakistan, the Philippines, Yemen and former Soviet republics. Perle and his colleagues have so far won the argument that the United States, riding in on a show of sheer force, has no need to kow-tow to hesitant Arab allies.

There is no doubt that these policies also informed Washington’s decision to subordinate Palestinian aspirations to its position in the war on terror. “Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing terrorism,” said President Bush in his infamous June speech. “This is unacceptable. And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure.”

The clear policy shift is part of administration plans to reshape the Middle East, remove the intransigent Iraq from the equation, and even to challenge the significant power of Iran. “We’re very concerned about disturbing and destructive behaviors that Iran has undertaken,” said White House spokesperson Richard Boucher recently. Iran’s support of groups fighting Israel was the first of the US complaints.

And so, by targeting all of the Middle Eastern governments not to its liking and becoming still more intimate with Israel, this US administration hopes to completely alter politics in the Middle East. US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told reporters on a recent visit to Turkey that “when there is a democratic Iraq, and that is our goal, an Iraq that preserves the territorial integrity of that country…it won’t be only the people of Iraq that benefit from that; it will be the whole world and very much this region.”

Analysts believe that the American attack on Iraq will begin very soon. US bombing raids have now picked up and are increasingly targeting areas near Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. British troops are slated for a massive mobilization in coming months, and the Jordanian government is plagued by reports t hat the United States plans to use its bases as a staging ground for attacks. While the monarchy vehemently denies those reports, the presence of Prince Hassan at a US meeting of Iraqi dissidents was a clear signal that Jordan plans to be actively involved in any US action. For it the stakes are high: a Western ally in Baghdad would take the pressure off the kingdom that is now sandwiched between enemies Israel and Iraq. “It is much more convenient for Jordan to have a pro-Western regime in Iraq than the current regime, which is a threat to the whole Jordanian regime,” says Brom.

But not everyone believes that the US attack on Iraq will significantly change the landscape of the region. Palestinian analyst Ali Jarbawi says that the first Gulf war was a “different story.” He thinks that the Palestinians are already facing such a challenge to their national interests in the form of the Israeli military, that removing Saddam Hussein from regional politics will mean little to their fate. “I think that Palestinians are making concessions already, without American actions in Iraq,” he says, a bit glumly.

Israelis, however, are banking on a significant American success. The alternative, says Brom, “will mean a weakening of the US position in the Middle East and its influence over issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” From his perspective, a failed US attempt to depose Saddam Hussein would be a “total disaster.”

Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.