Being 'pro-US' may be bad for Israel

by Naomi Chazan

The Jerusalem Post

March 14, 2003

The impending attack on Iraq is an American initiative.

This is not Israel's war. In the worst-case scenario, Israelis might become its primary victims. It is one thing to join a global struggle against terrorism, quite another to back, let alone actively defend, a full-scale military offensive against Saddam Hussein.

What can account for official Israel's wholehearted support of the operation?
The arguments used by Israeli proponents of an attack on Iraq are, at best, a bundle of contradictions. There exists a virtual international consensus on the dangers posed by Iraq's stockpiling of sophisticated conventional and non-conventional weapons, its role in the dissemination of terrorism, and its consistent involvement in regional and global destabilization.

The objective of disarming Iraq is shared by most members of the United Nations; the exercise of massive force at this juncture is not. The Sharon government's backing of the Bush Administration's policy is more an act of solidarity with the United States than a serious effort to neutralize the Iraqi threat.

Underlying the Israeli attempt to further consolidate the US-Israeli relationship is the misplaced assumption that there is a commonality of interests between the two countries on the Iraqi question. No such convergence, in fact, exists.

America's policy is propelled by a desire to reassert its supremacy, restore its fading deterrent credibility, avenge the Twin Towers horror, and protect its economic foothold in the Middle East.

Israeli interests do not entirely dovetail with these goals. Strategically, Iran poses as much of, if not a greater, threat to Israel than Iraq. Israel has systematically disputed recent US efforts to separate between the two. To accede to such a distinction at this time constitutes a major and uncalled for conceptual strategic shift with far-reaching consequences.

Israel also does not share the same economic motives as the US. The likelihood of a war on Iraq and its oilfields has already exacted substantial additional outlays from an already overburdened treasury. If Sharon and his advisers had hoped that Israel's support of the war would be royally rewarded, recent messages from Washington have dampened these expectations.

Israel's unquestioning advocacy of the American military campaign against Saddam actually increases Israel's reliance on the US and limits its international maneuverability. Ironically, the present government (whose leaders have claimed for years that Israel cannot count on anyone but itself and have consequently shunned close foreign connections) is now placing the country in a position of monolithic dependence on the US. Indeed, the Sharon administration's stance on the Iraq war is antithetical to Israel's immediate concerns and threatens to compromise its long-term interests.

ON THE surface, then, Israeli policy on Iraq makes very little sense. Explanations of official Israel's enthusiasm lie elsewhere.

First, the second Sharon coalition is using the threat of war to deflect attention from other matters. Domestically, the process of refreshing gas masks, instructing the population in graphic detail on how to deal with non-conventional warfare, issuing long lists of recommended supplies and even publicizing (to the pronounced annoyance of Washington) the anticipated dates of the attack, cannot but trigger widespread trepidation verging on panic.

The pronouncements of those charged with informing the public have been as soothing as hot pepper; the incessant war prattle of self-anointed experts has come to dominate the airwaves. The talk of war has become so preoccupying that the average Israeli is left with very little energy to contend with the faltering economy, rising unemployment, and growing social gaps.

More perniciously, the Iraqi situation has diverted the spotlight from Israeli activities in the Palestinian territories. Israeli military operations have escalated in recent weeks.
The reoccupation of large portions of Gaza and stepped-up actions in West Bank cities have exacted a high price in Palestinian lives and deepened the already alarming poverty in the area. These have evoked little commentary as war preparations proceed apace.

Israelis run the risk of waking up after the war to discover that the problems they face have intensified and that questionable policies have been carried out in their name while public attention was directed elsewhere.

For Sharon and his colleagues the Iraqi situation serves a second purpose: It delays external pressure on Israel to revive the diplomatic process. The Likud-led government first succeeded in deferring discussion on the proposed road map until after the elections, and now, once again, until after the war. Backing military action against Iraq in the near future is thus a convenient, albeit double-edged, tool of procrastination.

Buying time has the twofold advantage of enabling more changes on the ground and postponing hard decisions. It also harbors immense dangers for Israel. The aftermath of the war may substantially redraw the shape of the region, change the parameters of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and substantially alter the American-European relationship.

The very different scenarios of "the day after" call into question the advisability of any further delay in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A third, supplementary, explanation of Israel's eagerness is emotional. The government's outspoken defense of the US is, in part, a knee-jerk reaction to the mounting anti-war sentiment in Europe and North America, which has come together with severe criticism of Israel.

However disconcerting and misplaced this linkage, it should not be used as a reason to reaffirm a policy that may negate Israel's interests.
In many respects, therefore, current Israeli policy is highly instrumental and exceedingly shortsighted. It can be justified only if the current leadership truly believes its own assessment that Israel itself will not be subjected to an Iraqi attack.

If there is even a glimmer of doubt in this regard, then the pro-war activism reeks of complacency, if not downright irresponsibility. Israelis might yet find themselves entrapped in the inconsistencies of a cynical policy.

The Israeli government has once again chosen to propagate the use of force when all other possibilities have not yet been exhausted. Within Israel, this policy has been effective.

Large portions of the Israeli public have resigned themselves (out of despair and disarray) to the inevitability of war. Israel's attitude towards the impending military offensive is hence one of aggressive passivity. In these circumstances, critical public debate has been stymied.

From the perspective of Israeli goals and guiding values, Sharon's stance is foolhardy and fundamentally foolish. It may not be too late for Israelis to come out not only against a war that may seriously compromise their interests, but also against the facile use of force as a preferred means of resolving conflicts.

The writer, a former Meretz MK, is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University.