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Reuters AlertNet - Israel sees Iraq war dividend in new Middle East
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13 Feb 2003 12:18
Israel sees Iraq war dividend in new Middle East

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Cheering from the sidelines for a U.S. war on Iraq, Israel is counting a peace dividend even before the first shot has been fired.

In a series of recent public assessments, Israel's top general and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national security adviser have spoken respectively of a Middle East "earthquake" and bright "morning after" once Iraq's Saddam Hussein is gone.

They have forecast a ripple effect that could shake the ground beneath Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and other Arab adversaries, predictions that offer Israelis bracing for possible Iraqi missile attacks a light at the end of the tunnel.

But political analysts and commentators are questioning whether the chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Moshe Yaalon, and national security adviser Ephraim Halevy, a former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, have not jumped the gun.

"I understand the line of reasoning...that when the region sees that a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein has been deposed, the other brutal dictators in the region will think twice," said Joseph Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst.

But he said: "I think there is a large dose of wishful thinking here.

"I can just as easily give you a scenario whereby exactly the opposite will happen -- that as a result of the U.S. implanting itself in the heartland of the Arab world, there will be an acute reaction and there will be more extremism and more incitement against the United States."

Yaalon, who has served as military intelligence chief, said in a newspaper interview a week ago that "a U.S. attack in Iraq will trigger a regional earthquake" in the Middle East.

"After it, I believe there will be a new balance in the region, a new structure. A successful American offensive will...strengthen all of the pragmatic parties in the region."

But commentator Yigal Sarna, writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, said it was all "security spin" aimed at hiding what he called Sharon's failure to deliver on promises of peace during a now 28-month-old Palestinian uprising for statehood.

"After Saddam and Abu Ammar (Arafat's nom de guerre) are gone, the world will be a wonderful place, just like the fairy tale in which the wicked witch is dead," he wrote sarcastically.

"But Israelis are asking themselves what will really change -- and they know: nothing."


Israeli officials, privately and publicly, have been hammering home their hopes that Arafat, accused by Sharon of stoking anti-Israeli violence -- an allegation the Palestinian leader denies -- will become an Iraq war casualty.

"The shock waves emerging from post-Saddam Baghdad could have wide-ranging effects in Tehran, Damascus and in (Arafat's West Bank headquarters of) Ramallah," Halevy said in a speech to the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy on Monday.

"Thus, for example, it could well be that 2003 would see the natural replacement of discredited and non-credible Yasser Arafat by a genuine and serious leadership anxious to enter into real and painful negotiations for all concerned," he said.

But Palestinian officials have expressed fears that Sharon might opt to exile Arafat from the West Bank while the world was busy watching fighting in the Gulf.

Sharon said in a speech on Sunday the new government he is trying to form following his right-wing Likud party's victory in Israel's January 28 election would remove Arafat from power. But he did not explicitly threaten to banish him.

Alpher challenged the assumption Palestinians would choose to oust their president in the wake of any Gulf war sea-change.

"Where are the democratic, liberal forces in the region who are going to have the divisions to take over, to push Arafat aside? I don't see them," he said.

"We know a few names, but these are not necessarily people who have the divisions to depose Arafat, unless there is some assumption that Arafat will just pick up and say: 'Gee, I guess I belong to the old Middle East -- I have to go.'"

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