Still a Formidable Enemy

By Ya'ari, Ehud | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Still a Formidable Enemy


Ya'ari, Ehud, The World and I


Israel considers Saddam a potential menace to its soft belly--the long border with Jordan.

Americans--as well as Arabs and indeed everybody else--remember the Gulf War of 1991 as it actually occurred. Their perception of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein is consequently affected by his defeat at the time. Israelis still retain a different recollection: Rather than the memory of the war as it did take place, we are still very much aware of the way it could have developed. Namely, instead of moving into Kuwait before his nuclear device was ready for use, Saddam could have deferred action until a little later and then sent the heavy armored divisions of the Republican Guards into Jordan within easy strike of Israel.

There is ample evidence to indicate that Baghdad was considering this alternative course of action, and from an Israeli point of view it was a matter of sheer luck--some would say a miracle--that Saddam could not resist the temptation to grab the oil-rich tiny sheikhdom next door before he was ready.

Had Saddam opted for the other script, Israel would likely have had to face Iraq's might on its own. No coalition would have formed, no U.S. troops would have been rushed to the region, and General Schwatzkopf would have remained an anonymous general. An Israeli-Iraqi confrontation would have been a bloody, costly, devastating clash in which the winner--had there been one--would have paid much more than it could afford for a "victory."

In brief, Israel to this day considers Saddam a potential menace to its soft belly--the long border with Jordan. Even after the destruction of much of the Iraqi army and after the eight-year embargo, military analysts estimate that Iraq is capable of invading Jordan with four to six divisions in the course of 36 hours.

It is this recollection of the Gulf War as it could have happened and a sound respect for Iraqi power that will dictate Israel's attitude toward Saddam (and whoever may someday replace him). Iraq despite its present predicament is considered potentially the single most powerful Arab state, the only one that combines enormous oil wealth, freshwater and land sufficient for cultivation with skillful manpower, an almost uninterrupted track record of military endeavors, and a fierce ambition to achieve regional hegemony.

As long as the country is ruled by Saddam or a Saddam-type dictator, Israelis are bound to view Iraq as a formidable enemy. The emphasis that all Israeli governments have placed on forging a close alliance with Jordan emanates from a wish to maintain the Hashemite Kingdom as a solid buffer between Israel and Iraq. A buffer that, hopefully, may be converted down the road into a bridge for cooperation, once a new regime in Baghdad chooses to join the peace process. Indeed, it should be noted that the scope for economic relations between Israel and Iraq is greater than with any other Arab country.

In many ways, Saddam's ill-calculated adventures--attacking Iran, then Kuwait while intermittently fighting with the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south--proved a blessing for the peace process. …

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