After the US defeat
Israeli analysts are working round the clock to formulate the best strategy for surviving the fallout of America's inevitable withdrawal from Iraq, writes Saleh Al-Naami
The midnight oil in Ehud Barak's office in the Harkiyah district of Tel Aviv is burning nearly to the crack of dawn these days. The Israeli defence minister and his team have been working 19-hour shifts, pouring over what has been described as an "extremely vital" document. The document in question is a compilation of the findings of five study groups from the Ministry of Defence, Military Intelligence, the Israeli Defence Force Planning Department and the National Security Council on the question of how the eventual US withdrawal from Iraq will affect Israel's strategic interests.
Piles of cigarette butts cleared from relevant offices are said to testify to the bustle of work and intensity of concentration that went into this study, which, according to reports in the Israeli press this week, predicts "a new Middle East" in the fullest sense of the term. To the analysts who began their study in total secrecy three months ago, the forthcoming version of the region will be worse than anything Israel ever expected. The American withdrawal from Iraq, they claim, will set into motion a "tsunami" that will rock all of America's allies in the region, with Israel the hardest hit. They anticipate actual troop withdrawals to begin as early as September, which is when congressional hearings will be held over the report to be submitted by US Commander in Iraq General David Petraeus. The hearings will compound present pressures on the White House, as they are certain to bring President George W Bush to the centre of domestic controversy over Iraq and to aggravate already tense relations between his administration and the current Iraqi government.
In the opinion of the Israeli study, the proof that the Bush administration has made up its mind on an early withdrawal from Iraq is to be found in its decision to boost US military aid to Israel by a hefty 25 per cent up to $30 billion over the next 10 years, and in Washington's huge $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The military aid package and the arms deal are intended to pre-empt the Israeli and Saudi shock from the US's decision to withdraw from Iraq and give them a sense that they will be able to handle the fallout from this decision, the study claims. It adds that this was the reason for which King Abdullah, as a form of protest, called off a visit to Washington and instead made overtures to strengthen communications with Iran.
The Israeli analysts fear that the US withdrawal will usher in three threats. First, what will be hailed throughout the Arab and Islamic world as a stunning defeat for the US will come as an enormous boon to radical Islamist movements, which will step up their drive to destabilise moderate regimes in the region, and it will strengthen the regimes that are hostile to the US. To Israel, the gravest consequence of this would be the destabilisation of the regime in Jordan, which, the study claims, "is Israel's most important strategic asset in the region because it forms a buffer between Israel and the Shia crescent that will coalesce following the US withdrawal from Iraq. In addition, the Jordanian regime is a staunch opponent of radical Islamist movements and it performs the vital security task of preventing the infiltration of terrorists into Israel across the long border it shares with that country." The Israeli study believes that Iraq, after the US leaves, will become a staging post for terrorist activities aimed at inciting Jordanian opposition movements to rise up against the regime. Syria, of course, will lend a hand, permitting anti-Jordanian activity from its territory. The fall of the Jordanian regime, the report continues, would transform that country into an enemy zone, bringing Israel back to the very first years of its existence. To avert this peril, the report advises, all efforts must be made to support the Jordanian regime by rallying US and international aid to solve the water shortage problem and by furnishing Jordanian security forces with as much military technology as possible.
Second, the US withdrawal from Iraq would give additional incentive to Arab resistance movements, notably Hizbullah, to lash out at Israel and Iraq would become, again, a potential source of missile fire against Israel. Indeed, certain parties there might be interested in supplying jihadist elements with long-range missiles precisely for this purpose initially, and later in the hope that the missiles would be directed against Jordan.
Threat three, according to the report, would be an Iran free of the pressures that it is currently under and hence unencumbered in its drive to develop its nuclear programme and produce its own nuclear bomb. Iran, moreover, would be able to work in coordination with Syria, which would have eluded American attempts to tighten the stranglehold on the regime in Damascus. By 2009, the analysts warn, Syria will have completed the process of modernising its army. That year, the report adds, will coincide with the end of Bush's second term of office, after which America would change its policy towards Iraq and leave in earnest.
Obviously, the document in question represents the point of view of most of the experts in Tel Aviv who participated in drafting it. But a minority among the study groups suggested that the US withdrawal from Iraq might bring one good thing for Israel. US Command in Iraq has been vehemently opposed to an American assault against Iranian nuclear installations for fear that Iran would retaliate against US forces in Iraq. US withdrawal would remove that obstacle, paving the way for a potential US strike against Iran.
Well before news of this study was released, strategic experts in Israel urged decision makers in Tel Aviv not to count on a continued American presence in Iraq and to take the initiative, independently, to halt Iran's nuclear programme. Uzi Arad, former director of intelligence for Mossad and currently president of the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya, said that Israel had to invest all its energies into thwarting the Iranian nuclear programme even at the cost of going against Washington. Echoing this opinion, the former deputy minister of defence, Ephraim Sneh, held that all signs indicate that the US is about to leave Iraq before dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat and that Israel should proceed on its own to remedy this problem. "President Ahmadinejad doesn't have to use the nuclear weapon against us or even threaten to use it. Most Israelis will leave Israel the moment they hear that Iran has developed a nuclear weapon," he said on Israeli radio.
Still, one does hear the occasional dissenting voice in Israel. Shlomo Avineri, former director of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, cautioned Israeli leaders against being eager for the US to remain in Iraq. "For the Americans in Iraq, the story's over. They are looking at nothing but failure, however they might try to give the impression that the situation is changing for the better. They are going to withdraw from Iraq sooner or later, and the sooner the better, because the longer they remain there the worse is the damage to the US's international standing." Avineri goes on to argue that if the US's international standing were severely damaged it would have dangerous repercussions because America's prestige is one of Israel's most important pillars of strength.
Israeli writer Yaakov Ahmeir cautions Israel's Jewish American supporters of casting Israel as the reason to send more American troops to Iraq and to use greater force at a time when all signs point to the inevitable and dismal failure of that venture. He adds that Israel's standing in the US has been severely damaged by the fact that there are people there who claim that the US went to war in Iraq in order to defend Israel. Israel must not portray the situation "as though it is in Israel's interests for the Americans to sustain their deadly and futile presence in Iraq."