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Not All Israelis Welcome Prospect of War With Iraq

Some question whether the status quo isn't better than a battle that could further inflame sentiments against them in the Arab world.

October 16, 2002|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM -- As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon consults with President Bush in Washington today on Middle East violence and Iraq, a muted debate is underway here over whether a U.S.-led war against Israel's archenemy Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a good idea.

While it is widely assumed that Israelis are gloating over the prospect of Hussein getting his comeuppance after the Persian Gulf War, when 39 Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Israel, the reality is far more complex and the reactions more ambivalent.

No doubt Israelis more than almost anyone would prefer a Middle East without Hussein, but some question whether the status quo of a weakened and contained Iraq isn't better than a war that could further inflame anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world.

And in recent weeks, some Israelis in the military and security establishment have cautiously questioned whether Hussein poses as immediate a threat as Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have warned.

"Saddam Hussein, a weakling as he is today, is in Israel's interests," said Aharon Levran, a brigadier general in Israel's reserve army and author of a book about the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Levran, one of the more outspoken Israeli critics of Bush's policy on Iraq, says Baghdad is no longer capable of anything more than a border skirmish.

"A war against Iraq will divert the United States from its clear-cut campaign against Islamic fanaticism," Levran said. "And if it fails, we in Israel will pay the price."

Opposition leader Yossi Sarid agreed. "Washington is far away. We live in the Middle East, and the consequences will be most immediate for us."

Among hard-liners, there is resentment over the suggestion that Israel should rein in its campaign against Palestinian violence so as not to hinder the Bush administration's efforts to win support from reluctant Arab governments for a campaign against Iraq.

During today's meeting, Bush will ask Sharon to show restraint during this period of diplomatic sensitivity, administration officials said. In particular, he wants Sharon to stop focusing so intently on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whose headquarters was put under siege and largely demolished by the Israeli army last month.

"Let's not make Arafat the issue. Let him depart into the sunset, as he now seems likely to do," a State Department official said Tuesday. "Don't try to push him off, which is only rallying more Palestinians around him."

Sharon, in return, is expected to ask that the United States not use the occasion of an Iraq war to try to impose an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal for the sake of American diplomatic expedience.

Another major item on the agenda is the question of whether Israel would strike back if attacked by Iraq. Sharon has stated publicly that Israel has every intention of retaliating this time around, unlike in 1991, when Israel held back in deference to the U.S.

"A lot of our focus is how to make the possibility of Israeli retaliation moot," a Bush administration official said Tuesday.

Despite Sharon's assertion that the U.S. war on terrorism is part of the same campaign Israel is waging in the Palestinian territories, the United States has been unusually vocal in its criticism of Israel lately. Israel was rebuked over last week's incursion into the Gaza Strip in which 17 Palestinians were killed. The U.S. ambassador to Israel delivered a sharply worded letter to Sharon on Friday asking that Israel ease conditions for the Palestinians.

"Until the day after the Iraqi campaign is over, we're on a very short leash," complained an Israeli lobbyist, who asked not to be quoted by name. "We are weaker, and the Arabs know it."

Given the raucous nature of discourse in Israel, there has been relatively little public debate about Iraq.

There have been no noisy rallies either for or against a war. Sharon has issued a gag order on government officials, prohibiting them from talking publicly about Iraq.

In any case, those most enthusiastic about Washington's campaign dread any suggestion that Israel is egging on the U.S. And those with misgivings are loath to say anything that might embarrass Israel's most steadfast ally.

"The United States has supported us in our catastrophes," Levran said, "so we have to support the United States in theirs."

In recent weeks, however, several high-ranking Israeli military officers have voiced doubts about American and British assessments of the threat posed by Iraq and in particular how quickly Iraq could develop nuclear weapons.

"There is a difference between our assessment and that stated by the British," military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash said in a recent interview with Israeli television. But he added that Israel does agree with assessments about Iraq's continuing efforts to develop biological and chemical weapons.

Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon also has said in recent interviews that Iraq's offensive abilities have been reduced since the Gulf War.

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