Under Iraq War Shadow
Sharon Fights for Strategic Footing

by DEBKAfile

23 September 2002

The weathervane of US-Israel relations has begun to hover between fair and cloudy as the Bush administration’s assault on Iraq approaches. DEBKAfile’s Washington and Jerusalem sources say the trouble is not related to Israel’s isolation of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah – that episode is closely coordinated with the White House – but to developing dissonances over the Iraq campaign.

In one of the first surface Indicators of this unease, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, in one of his pre-New Year interviews earlier this month, suddenly came out with a revelation – not about Iraq or even Iran, but aboutEgypt’s previously unheard of nuclear program. He informed an unsuspecting American and Israeli public that a Libyan program was well advanced to build the first Arab-Muslim nuclear bomb as a joint Egyptian, Iraqi enterprise funded by Saudi Arabia.
Sharon’s revelation was not repeated. According to DEBKAfile’s Washington sources, the Bush team jumped on him for stirring up embarrassing mud when Washington needed help from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fight Saddam Hussein. The timing was unfortunate. In early August, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had been finally brought round to making bases available for the campaign. They agreed half-heartedly to turning a blind eye – Abdullah, to American military use of the Prince Sultan air base east of Riyadh; Mubarak, to the American aircraft touching down and lifting off from the big military base at Cairo West and US warships cruising up and down the Suez Canal.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly (No. 76) first revealed on August 2 that Cairo West had been converted into the main logistic and jumping off base for US assault troops going into Iraq, while the Suez Canal (despite the Egyptian ruler’s public denials of Egypt’s involvement) is being used by American warships and aircraft carriers bound for the Persian Gulf and Red Sea as a crucial short cut from the Mediterranean.

Slapped down on the Arab nuclear issue, Sharon came up with a new one: He defined as a casus belli Lebanon’s project to tap the Hatsbani River by pumping water from its main tributary the Wazzani and diverting 15 percent of Israel’s water supply. The Hatsbani is fed additionally by subterranean springs near Ajar, the border village split between Israel and Lebanon. And a further complication: the Hizballah has posted armed guards at the Lebanese project on top of the thousands of missiles the Lebanese Shiite terrorists have positioned along the Lebanese-Israeli frontier – all pointed at northern Israel.

Washington, fearing an untimely conflagration, again asked Sharon to hold his horses, while a panel of American water experts hurried over to review the rights and wrongs of the situation and report to the US administration. Although Israel assigned its own water and intelligence experts, such as retired general Uri Shani, chairman of the Mekorot Water Company, to keeping the issue alive, the Bush administration’s efforts had until last week succeeded in muting the discord surrounding this and other Middle East flashpoints.

But then the cat was let out of the bag. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Joel Hefley (R-Colorado) put a question to defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “If we attack (Saddam), he showed in the Persian Gulf War that he’ll send missiles to Israel. If he sends dirty bombs to Israel…I don’t think we can restrain Israel this time.”

Rumsfeld’s reply: “It would be in Israel’s overwhelmingly best interests not to get involved.”

Our analysts translate this as a message from Washington to Riyadh and Cairo in respect of Israel’s plan to crush Arafat’s regime in Ramallah with Washington’s assent. The message ran like this: We are holding Israel in check on the Libyan-Egyptian-Saudi nuclear bomb and the Wazzani water dispute; it is up to you to hold quiet for the Israeli assault on Arafat’s power base.

What would Egypt and Saudi have to gain from their silence? The intelligence data reaching Washington on a potential Iraqi pre-emptive attack points to Israel as Saddam’s preferred target in the Middle East.

If Washington can this time too persuade Israel to sit on its hands in the face of an Iraqi attack, its deterrent and strike capabilities will be seriously impaired - as they were in 1991.The Jewish state will come out of the Iraqi conflict beaten and debilitated, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia have every chance of escaping Saddam Hussein’s ire and emerging stronger.

The small price for this reward will be to abandon Arafat to his fate.

And, indeed, the silence from Cairo and Riyadh over Arafat’s plight has been deafening.

American-Israeli sparring over Iraq has only just begun. Our Washington sources believe that the Bush administration will push hard to prevent Israel from reacting militarily to an Iraqi strike – even if it is a terrorist attack. At the same time, Sharon will be given free rein to grab the top terror team under Arafat’s protection in Ramallah, including Tawfiq Tirawi, West Bank General Intelligence chief and the commander of the suicidal al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Putting Tirawi, who takes care of Iraqi military intelligence agents on the West Bank, out of commission is also in America’s military interests.

The Bush administration has found support from two distinguished senators for its drive to force Israel to hold still in the face of assault from Baghdad. Sunday, September 22,, Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D.-Delaware) chairman of the foreign relations Committee and Richard C. Shelby (R.-Alabama), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, both warned that retaliation by Israel could mean a widespread war in the Middle East. Shelby added: “We’d also be perceived as fighting side by side with the Israelis against all the Arab interests.” Both appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation..

DEBKAfile ’s Washington sources discern in these moves the beginning of the blame game, one that is destined to be played out should the US offensive against Baghdad tip the Middle East into overall conflict or run into unforeseen setbacks. The finger will then swivel round to point at Sharon instead of Washington or any Arab government.

Sunday, September 22, when he saw this coming, the Israeli leader abruptly ordered IDF bulldozers to back off and stop tearing down the buildings housing Arafat’s ruling institutions in Ramallah, although he left the choking, isolating siege in place. He needed time out to ponder whether Arafat’s eclipse would be worth the price of restraint in the face of Iraqi aggression – a decision more crucial than any the 74-year old ex-general has ever confronted, and one that will determine Israeli’s fate and regional standing for a decade or more.

President George W. Bush is facing hard dilemmas of his own, as too is Saudi Prince Abdullah. By receiving the US war commander, General Tommy Franks, on Sunday, September 22, the Saudi de facto ruler was signaling Saddam Hussein that, if he played his cards right, a second golden opportunity for undermining Israel had been dropped in their laps by Washington