Israel Sets Sights on Iraq War Strategic Gains

Mon April 7, 2003 10:54 AM ET By Jeffrey Heller JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Ask Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq and the former general will quickly shoot back it's not Israel's war.

But watching events unfold from the low-profile position it has staked out at the behest of its guardian U.S. ally, Israel quietly stands to reap strategic benefits from the crushing of a long-time enemy.

They include, Israeli strategic analysts said on Monday, an end to any future Iraqi nuclear threat and a possible move by other Arab enemies to avoid confrontation with Israel now that its best friend has muscled its way into the neighborhood.

"The war will influence the behavior of other potential rivals of Israel, especially Iran, Syria and (the Lebanese guerrilla group) Hizbollah," predicted retired general Shlomo Brom of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

"It is clear to them that if they do not behave, they could be the next target of the United States," he told Reuters.

Brom noted that Hizbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, had already shown "very cautious behavior during the current crisis."

Before the Iraq war, Israeli newspapers headlined fears Hizbollah would respond to a Gulf conflict by firing missiles at Israel, effectively opening a northern front that would tax an Israeli army confronting a Palestinian uprising for statehood.


Israel has also traditionally looked warily toward the east, where it has seen Iraq as a threat and a military backstop for the Jewish state's long-time foe, Syria.

"Iraq has participated in all the wars against Israel," said Ephraim Inbar,> director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"(Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) attempted to develop nuclear weapons...(and) developed long-range missiles -- he already sent a few 12 years ago," he said, referring to Scud attacks that Iraq launched against Israel in the 1991 Gulf War.

"He is a declared enemy of the Jewish state and helped Palestinian terrorist groups," Inbar added. Iraq has been paying $25,000 to families of Palestinian suicide bombers, money which Israel says encourages attacks in its city centers.

Iraq's neighbor to the east, Iran, is widely viewed in Israel as a long-term threat. Teheran's nuclear reactor program, which Iranian leaders say is peaceful, has raised Israeli concern.

"The United States will be able to apply more effective pressure on (Iran) to stop this (nuclear) project," Brom said. "This will be of great strategic benefit to Israel."


In the run-up to the Iraq war, senior Israeli officials pointed to a peace dividend, saying the conflict could trigger a "regional earthquake" that would weaken Islamic militants and strengthen what they called Arab pragmatists.

Inbar noted the 1991 Gulf War was followed several months later by a historic Middle East peace conference in Madrid that set the stage for interim peace deals between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The Arabs came to the negotiating table in order to please America," he said. "We may see a similar scenario."

But Brom said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may not have been far off the mark in comments he made to Egyptian soldiers last week about an Iraq war aftershock.

"Instead of having one (Osama) bin Laden, we will have 100 bin Ladens," Mubarak said, referring to the Saudi-born fugitive Islamic militant leader blamed by the United States for the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Brom said increased frustration within Arab society over U.S. actions in Iraq "can boost recruitment into terrorist organizations such as bin Laden's or Islamic groups."