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Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 2002 / 24 Tishrei, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Let them hit back

An anti-Iraq coalition that treats Israel as a pariah is a mistake | With war against Iraq at the top of the American policy agenda, debate over the wisdom of an attempt at "regime change" in Baghdad is dominating the airwaves and newspaper pages.

Such a debate is, of course, healthy for our democracy and necessary for the president to rally support for his plans.

Nevertheless, the outcome of this contest is as foreordained as any battle between U.S. forces and the army of Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush will almost certainly get Congressional approval and probably even the acquiescence of the United Nations to an offensive against Iraq.

Many of the Arab and European opponents of such a war are quick to brand it as an Israeli plot. But given the obvious desire of the second Bush administration to wipe the slate clean on the unfinished business of his father's battle, that slur doesn't fly.

Israel would obviously be happy to see the region rid of a fanatic a nti-Zionist government that has already attacked the Jewish state without provocation and participated in every war to destroy it. Yet as the citizens of Kuwait and Iran can testify, the Iraqi regime has been an active threat to all of its regional neighbors.

But baseless slurs about the administration's motives notwithstanding, there is one aspect to this discussion that does deserve greater examination: the budding campaign to ensure that Israel does not retaliate if it is attacked by Iraq.


That argument has been voiced by both administration spokespeople and Democrats like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joseph Biden of Delaware. Biden declared that if Israel responded to an attack, no Muslim nation would support the United States, even behind the scenes.

"And you would find probably every embassy in the Middle East burned to the ground before it went too far," Biden said on CBS''s "Face the Nation" program.

And lest one think such overblown rhetoric is limited to the likes of Capitol Hill gasbags such as Biden, even the far more sensible Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Congress a few days earlier that "It would be in Israel''s overwhelming best interest not to get involved."

Of course, Israel would like nothing better than to be left out of the fighting. But Israelis should be very wary of a rerun of the Persian Gulf war scenario. In 1991, many observers praised Israel for her forbearance in allowing Iraq to hit her territory with dozens of missiles without replying. But for all the good press Israel got, the decision was, in retrospect, a disaster.

The Gulf war cost Israel more than the casualties and millions in damages incurred by SCUD missiles. It was a crucial blow to Israel''s ability to deter Arab attacks. By staking itself out as a victim that would not respond, it put the idea into Arab heads that future instances of anti-Israel violence would bring dividends not crushing retaliation.

It is that lesson, rather than memories of Israel''s victories in past wars, that animated the Lebanese terrorists of Hezbollah as they escalated their attacks in the 1990s. Similarly, this lesson lay behind the decision of Yasser Arafat to opt in September 2000 for a war with Israel rather than peace.

Back in 1991, America got credit for "defending" Israel with Patriot anti-missile batteries that turned out later to have been largely useless. And when, after the war ended and the elder President Bush fecklessly allowed Saddam Hussein to survive and massacre his domestic opponents, who paid the bill to reclaim America's reputation as a friend of the Arab world?

Predictably, it was Israel that was strong-armed by Secretary of State James Baker into attending a Madrid peace conference. From there, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the disastrous Oslo process.

By announcing in advance that it was trying to restrain Israel, the administration has all but guaranteed that Iraq will try to repeat its previous attack on Israel that earned it the rooftop cheers of Palestinians. Even if Israel is determined to hit back, statements such as those of Rumsfeld and Biden will make Saddam take Israeli threats less seriously than if America remained silent on the topic.

That said, there is every reason to expect this Bush administration to treat Israel with greater respect than the first Bush presidency. It may well be that attempts to keep Israel out of the conflict are merely rhetoric intended to give cover to Arab regimes that want Saddam dead as much as Jerusalem does.

But even if we take that as a given, this question is more than a dispute about tactics. At issue here is exactly what kind of post-Gulf war II Middle East Washington expects?


If regime change and democracy are indeed our goals in Iraq, then one of the offshoots of such a revolutionary upheaval ought to be acceptance of a Jewish state and a readiness to make genuine peace with it. But if the post-Iraq war scenario requires Israel to be as much of a pariah in the Middle East as it does today, we have to wonder just how much progress towards democracy we'll actually get? The goal of this war should be to change the way the so-called "Arab street" thinks by demonstrating the futility of opposing American values, not to appease it.

America's private assurances that it will protect Israel in the event of war are nice but of little value. If there is anything that Israel should have learned, it is that while its alliance with America is its chief asset, deterrence of Arab attacks relies on the certain knowledge of Israeli counter-attack.

Washington shouldn't be bluffed into accepting Arab dictates on Israel. As the Gulf war proved, any attempt to substitute American guarantees for Israeli self-defense will inevitably undermine Israel and encourage its foes. Israel need not be an active member of the anti-Iraq coalition, but the notion that such a coalition would be destroyed by any sort of Israeli riposte in self-defensive is abhorrent and untrue. The Arab world will, in the end, go along with the American effort because it understands that American values and power are the wave of the future.

Diplomatic niceties aside, Americans instinctively understand that in the post 9/11 world, defense of U.S. interests and security cannot be left to others.

The same is true for Israel.

And that is a message that Saddam Hussein and those who applaud his threats need to hear loud and clear.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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