A rerun of 1991?

In 1991 the coalition victory over Iraq in the Gulf War paved the way for the Middle East peace process. That process started with the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 and culminated during the ’90s in the conclusion of an Israeli- Jordanian peace agreement and a series of Israeli- Palestinian partial agreements within the framework of the Oslo process. Oslo collapsed in 2000 and was engulfed by violence after the government of Ehud Barak failed in its vigorous attempts to conclude a permanent agreement with the Palestinians as well as a peace agreement with Syria.

The assumption that the United States has chosen war on Iraq as the next stage in the war on terrorism raises an intriguing question: Is this future war going to have an equally sweeping effect on the Israel-Arab relationship, and in what manner?

The goals of the war would be the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the resumption of United Nations monitoring regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These goals are more ambitious than the goals of the 1991 Gulf War. That difference, and the different political environment, may have several repercussions:

– First, it will be a more risky operation and the possibility of failure should be taken into account.

– Secondly, the threat to his very existence may lead Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to react in a brutal and unconstrained way. This could include the use of weapons of mass destruction against US allies in the Middle East, Israel and others. That in turn might generate reactions by Israel and the US that would have a lasting effect on the entire Middle East.

– Third, this war is not likely to be a coalition war. Most probably it will be carried out by the US alone, perhaps with some limited British participation and the passive cooperation of some US allies in the Middle East.

If the US operation fails, this will undermine the US position in the Middle East. It will strengthen the radical anti-American regimes and movements, and will send a very negative signal to the moderates. They will understand that they cannot count on US protection and that the only way left for them is to accommodate the radicals and yield to the anti-US sentiments that are so popular in broad Arab audiences.

This in turn will have a negative effect on the Arab-Israel relationship. Those who prefer the use of violence against Israel will gather more confidence while the moderates in the Arab world will be afraid to challenge them.

Although this possibility of failure has to be considered, it is more probable that the US will succeed in achieving its goals. The proven US military capabilities, the weakness of Iraq’s armed forces and the fact that Saddam’s regime is hated by so many Iraqis, all give credence to the assumption that with careful planning, equal to the level of planning of the Afghanistan operation, the US can succeed in this mission.

Success will have the opposite effect of failure. US allies in the Middle East will be encouraged, US deterrence will be strengthened, and the anti- American regimes and movements will probably be more cautious and less provocative. Iran, for example, has a record of behaving very pragmatically when it faces high risks and high costs. A US victory may have a great restraining effect on it, including on its willingness to support and encourage anti-Israeli violence. Syria certainly will continue with its present relatively cautious policies and will try to restrain Hizballah. The Palestinians will probably understand that they have to be more cautious. It is also possible that the Iraqi defeat will dampen the enthusiasm of the Palestinian extremists. On the other hand Israel will probably feel more confident and less threatened by the threat of escalation with Arab states. This implies that Israel will assume that it can concentrate on the more urgent issue of the conflict with the Palestinians.

These probable results of a US victory may create an opportunity to effect a real change in the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This could take either one of two opposite directions. One possibility is further escalation; Israel may decide that this is an opportunity to get rid of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and to re-conquer the Palestinian areas, based on the assumption that such a complete reshuffling of the cards will improve Israel’s capabilities to prevent violent attacks on its citizens and perhaps even create an opportunity for a new political process.

On the other hand, a US victory could create an opportunity for a new effort to stop the violence and resume negotiations, with improved chances of success. This will not be easy, insofar as the leaders of the two parties are gradually losing control over the escalation, and are locked in a vicious circle of actions and counter-actions.

The direction that the conflict takes following a successful US war effort against Iraq depends to a great extent on the role the US plays. US prestige and power in the Middle East will reach a peak that can be used to resume leadership of the Israeli-Palestinian process and the peace process as a whole-the way taken by Secretary of State Baker in 1991. The US will have to coerce the parties involved to change direction, and will have to be willing to invest the necessary resources and commitment for such an initiative to succeed. Recent experience, including the post- September 11 period, shows that the two parties alone are not capable of exploiting opportunities for a genuine reversal of the situation.

Will American leadership rise to the challenge, or remain a passive bystander? This is the real question.

Brigadier General (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a Senior Research Associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University. His last post in the Israel Defense Forces was Director of the Strategic Planning Division of the General Staff.

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