The situation in Iraq acutely threatens Israeli security
By Juan Cole
Friday, June 04, 2004
As the American public gradually wearies of the Iraq crisis, some have begun worrying that the war could blow back on the US by creating the conditions for anti-American terrorism. Israel, however, is much closer to Iraq and is likely to suffer from Iraqi instability much more acutely than will the United States. Ironically, among the strongest proponents of war in Iraq were Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his neoconservative supporters in the US. Have they, however, actually weakened Israeli security?
The biggest threat Israel faces is not from conventional armies but from the asymmetrical tactics of Palestinian national liberation movements. The derailing of the Oslo peace process by the hard-line policies of Sharon and the Palestinian intifada has encouraged suicide bombings. This, in turn, has discouraged international investment in Israel and has made it less likely that immigrants to the country will actually remain there.
Although Israel withdrew from Lebanese territory in May 2000, the radical Lebanese Shiite party, Hizbullah, has not been mollified. It is estimated to have some 5,000 armed fighters, and they have pursued attacks against Israeli forces to compel them to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms, a sliver of Syrian territory that Israel annexed after the 1967 war.
Any thorough assessment of the impact of the Iraq war and its aftermath on Israel’s security environment must, therefore, closely examine its likely effect on the conduct of asymmetrical warfare. Although it is often alleged (without much evidence) that Saddam Hussein gave money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and so encouraged asymmetrical warfare, it is not clear that he actually posed a danger to Israel. The Palestinians who have been willing to kill themselves to end the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were not driven by economic considerations.
Saddam never did anything practical to help the Palestinians. At some points, as in the late 1980s, he reportedly made behind-the-scenes overtures to the Israelis to arrive at some sort of a deal. He did not allow Palestinian radicals to launch operations against Israel from Iraq. By the late 1990s, Iraq had no nuclear or biological weapons program, and had destroyed its chemical weapons stockpiles. Its ramshackle army had virtually collapsed before the American invasion in 2003.
If it is hard to see how Baathist Iraq posed any real threat to Israel, it is not so difficult to see a menace in the current instability. The bungling of post-war Iraq by the Bush administration created a weak and failed state. Armed militias, many staffed by former Iraqi military men with substantial training and experience, have proliferated. The US chose to ally itself with such groups as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose 15,000-strong Badr Corps paramilitary was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian feeling is strong among several major Iraqi ideological groups and currents. The more radical Shiites, who generally follow the theocratic notions of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, routinely chant and demonstrate against Israel. They vehemently protested the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas, last March. Worse for Israel, the assassination drew a denunciation even from the moderate and cautious Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who wields enormous moral authority over Iraqi Shiites.
These Shiite movements had been suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, but have now organized and armed themselves. They have also reestablished their historical links with Lebanese and Iranian Shiites. It is inevitable that most Iraqi Shiites will side with their Hizbullah coreligionists against Israel, and it seems likely that Iraqi Shiites will get rich enough from Iraqi petroleum sales in the future that they will be in a good position to bankroll Lebanese Shiite radicals.
Sunni Arab fundamentalists deeply sympathize with the Palestinians and with Hamas, and those in Iraq have deep historical inks with fundamentalists in Jordan and Palestine. Iraqi cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi were on the truck route from Amman to Baghdad, and so came under the influence of the Salafi movement, which is popular in Jordan. Secular Arab nationalist groups also universally sympathize with the Palestinians, and those in post-Saddam Iraq are no exception.
Whereas Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship ensured that such populist currents were kept firmly under control, they are now free to organize. An Iraq in which armed fundamentalist and nationalist militias proliferate is inevitably a security worry for Israel. If even a modicum of normality and security can be returned to Iraq, its citizens will be able to benefit from the country’s petroleum reserves. That private wealth can easily be funneled into aid for the Palestinians and for Lebanese Shiites.
Israel’s security interests are best served by peace with its neighbors, which can only be achieved by trading land for peace with the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon’s aggressive near annexation of almost half of the occupied West Bank and his indefinite postponement of any Palestinian state have created unprecedented rage and violence. The anger has spread throughout the Muslim world, including Iraq. The promotion by the pro-Zionist right of twin occupations – in the West Bank and in Iraq – has profoundly weakened, not strengthened, Israeli security.
Juan Cole (www.juancole.com) is a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan and author of “Sacred Space and Holy War” (I.B. Tauris, 2002). THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in agreement with Agence Global