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
"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.'"