Israel Report

October 2002         

Israel's Role in Toppling Saddam

by Neill Lochery - October 21, 2002
U.S. President George W. Bush has told Israeli and Palestinian leaders not to distract the world from the coming U.S. war with Iraq, however, now is not the time to isolate Israel in order to appease the Arab world. On the contrary, as Israeli involvement in any conflict is inevitable, it makes sense for U.S. planners to co-ordinate planning activities with their Israel counterparts.

This time, unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there is unlikely to be any Arab participation in the Allied coalition. This lack of a broad military coalition, however, should be viewed as a positive development in that it potentially allows U.S. and Israeli military planners greater scope for utilizing Israeli military assets against Iraq than in 1991.

Those who cling to the belief that Israel can be kept out of the war (as it was in 1991) are deluding themselves. The most sobering news to come out of the Middle East in recent weeks was the decision of the Israeli Cabinet to vaccinate 15,000 key health workers against smallpox. Though the government in Jerusalem played down the significance of the decision, it is clear there are growing fears of a non-conventional attack of Israeli urban centres by Iraq. If there is a chemical attack launched by Iraq then Israel will respond robustly.

In 1991, the Israeli government made it clear "through the usual channels" that any chemical attack would be met with a tactical nuclear strike on Iraqi cities by Israel. The seriousness of the Israeli threat at the time is difficult to measure, but many argue that it was the major reason Saddam Hussein only used Scuds armed with conventional warheads. In 2002, there is no guarantee that the same decision-making process will be followed in Iraq, and Israel knows this. Some elements of the Israeli military are, in private, already calling for a pre-emptive strike against Iraqi targets to reduce its capability of launching such an attack on Israel when the expected U.S. air attacks commence.

Even a conventional attack by Iraq would bring an Israeli military response. One of the myths of the Persian Gulf War was that president Bush Sr. managed to keep Israel out of the war with a mixture of the political carrot and stick. We have since learned that Israel remained out of the war due to a secret deal struck by the then-Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and King Hussein of Jordan, in which Shamir promised not to violate Jordanian territory (land or air).

Shamir kept his word, but only just. Under strong pressure from the hawks in his Cabinet Israeli bombers were prepared for missions, but heavy cloud cover prevented them ever undertaking their missions. In truth, the wily old fox Shamir allowed the Americans to presume that it was their pressure that was preventing Israeli retaliation for Scud attacks in the hope of maximizing the U.S. political and economic payback to Israel at the conclusion of the war.

To this day, it is clear that figures such as Dick Cheney (then secretary for defence) and Colin Powell (then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff) remain convinced that Israel listened to them in 1991. Crucially, both presume that Israel will also fall into line in 2002-03. They are mistaken.

Accepting that Israel will respond to Iraqi attacks (code for enter the war), it would appear more prudent to include Israel in the war plans from the outset. This could be done on various levels. The most obvious use of Israel would be in the intelligence field. Despite improvements on the ground since Sept. 11, U.S. intelligence gathering remains very weak. The over-reliance on intelligence gathered from technical sources such as spy satellites over hard intelligence gathered by agents on the ground remains a key problem. Israel's two main intelligence agencies, Mossad and IDF intelligence, have a far clearer picture of what is going on inside Iraq, particularly the strengths of the opposition parties.

In terms of military operations Israel could contribute to the widely expected air campaign, and by employing its Special Forces to destroy Iraqi mobile missile sites on the ground.

On the political level, the Arab states would no doubt argue that Israel's involvement was confirmation of the imperialist intentions of the U.S. attack. In 2002, support for Iraq among key Arab leaders, the Arab intelligentsia and the wider public is much stronger than in 1991. This is especially true in Syria where President Bashir Assad has started a process of economic and diplomatic normalization with Baghdad. Crucially, it is unlikely that any Arab state would come to the aid of Iraq -- even if Israeli forces were overtly involved in military operations.

Israel exists in a dangerous neighbourhood and is keen to contribute whatever it can to the campaign to remove a vicious dictator from its doorstep. President George W. Bush should give the order to his military advisors to involve Israel in the planning and execution of the war. The brutal truth is that this will be Israel's war as much as America's.

Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.

©2002 - National Post

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