There appears to be a probability greater than 50 percent that, sometime in the months ahead, the United States will launch a military initiative designed to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Assuming this happens, it appears likely that Saddam will respond, as in the past, by attacking Israel. Unlike the Iraqi non- conventional missile attack of 1991, this time Saddam is thought likely to use some sort of non- conventional weapon–chemical or biological– delivered against Israel either in a missile warhead or by aircraft.
Conceivably the damage would not be great. The Iraqi ordnance stock is primitive and run down, and Israel today possesses far more effective countermeasures than in 1991. But Iraq would have crossed a dangerous threshold for the entire Middle East.
This, then, is the most likely scenario. It is by no means a certainty. One could introduce variables in any of its segments. Indeed, one could dismiss it altogether, insofar as events in the Middle East rarely unfold in accordance with predictions. But because the events it describes are potentially of far-reaching strategic importance for Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs, and because US Vice President Cheney is coming to the region to discuss Iraq, the ramifications of this scenario are worthy of analysis, however speculatively.
First of all, the Israeli-Palestinian aspects. Assuming that when this scenario takes place the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still raging, an Iraqi attack on Israel would exacerbate it. Many Palestinians are likely to identify openly with Saddam, who will undoubtedly lump the US and Israel together as enemies of the Arabs and claim, as he did in 1990-1991, to be fighting the Palestinians’ war. So Israel could find itself fighting on two fronts: one, internal, Palestinian, and a second, over the horizon, Iraqi. Conceivably, active Palestinian support for Iraq would free Israel’s hand to deal more harshly with the Palestinian uprising.
An Israeli counterattack against Iraq would be far more likely this time than in 1991, when Israel avoided an armed response to Saddam’s missiles. This is particularly so if Iraq uses non- conventional weapons and Israel sustains casualties. Israel’s response might escalate tensions throughout the Middle East. This might play into Palestinian hands. But it would also strengthen Israel’s deterrent profile, which was damaged by its restraint in 1991 and by its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.
Ramifications for Jordan of this scenario are particularly sensitive. Because Jordan constitutes a territorial buffer between Israel and Iraq, its sovereignty might in some way be compromised by an escalating Iraqi-Israeli exchange. And because Jordan has a large Palestinian population, its sociopolitical stability might be adversely affected.
American relations and for regional stability. America’s calculations regarding the need for broad Arab backing for–or at least acquiescence in–its offensive against Iraq, might cause it to exercise pressure on Israel, prior to the attack, to reduce the profile of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. The impending missions to the area by Cheney and US envoy Anthony Zinni might be the occasion to launch this pressure. The US might also pressure Israel, as it did in 1991, to abstain from responding militarily to an Iraqi attack. Israel would have to weigh its own need to maintain its deterrent by striking back, against both potential damage to American interests and to regional stability and the possible denial of benefits that Israel might reap by remaining passive during a successful US campaign against Saddam.
On the other hand, a failed American attempt to depose Saddam by force would seriously damage US prestige in the region. It would constitute a blow against all moderate regimes and an immense morale booster for the forces of Islamic extremism. Moreover, possible Iraqi use of non-conventional weapons, as anticipated here, might radically escalate the Middle East arms race. This would affect not only the Israel-Arab sphere, but Iran, Syria, Libya and their neighbors as well.
Yet assuming the US attacks Iraq and succeeds in deposing Saddam and installing a moderate new regime, this will have potentially far-reaching ramifications for other radical regimes in the region. Syria and Iran, for example, will understand that the Bush administration is indeed willing and able to use force against Middle East states that support terrorism. The outcome might even be a peaceful evolution of their policies, away from terrorism. All the elements in the Palestinian Authority that engage in terrorism would witness a dramatic erosion in regional support for their policies. The overall outcome would be positive not only for Israel, but for regional stability and moderation in general.
Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”