During the Oslo peace process, Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident turned politician, was a lone, even eccentric, voice on the Israeli right. Where others on the right condemned Oslo for betraying historic claims or vital security needs, Sharansky attacked it for betraying democracy. By imposing dictatorship on the Palestinians, he argued, Israel was repeating the mistake made by Western democracies that sought stability by accommodating rather than challenging communist regimes. Sharansky’s insistence that Israel’s territorial concessions be linked to Palestinian democratic reform was dismissed by both the left and right as the archaic thinking of a Soviet immigrant who didn’t understand the Middle East.
But, with the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sharansky, who now serves as minister in charge of diaspora affairs, believes he has been vindicated. “Iraq will be the first experiment in exporting democracy to the Arab world,” he says. “Israel is the only country in the region that has experience in building democratic institutions, and we should offer our help.”
How to offer that help, of course, is no simple matter. Even Sharansky acknowledges that Israel must proceed with caution: “This isn’t the time for diplomatic initiatives with Iraq. If Israel wants to destroy the credibility of an Iraqi leader, it should publicly embrace him.” Aside from one lapse—the announcement, quickly rescinded after Jordanian protest, by an Israeli government minister that he was seeking to revive the pre-1948 Iraqi oil pipeline that ran through Jordan and ended in Haifa—the low profile that Israel maintained toward Iraq during the conflict is continuing. Israel has even continued to shun Ahmed Chalabi. Though the Iraqi exile leader has repeatedly affirmed his support for diplomatic relations with the Jewish state and visited the country in the late ‘90s, few Israeli officials have agreed to even meet with him, accepting the CIA’s assessment of his marginality. “Chalabi has gotten no help from Israel,” bemoans the Hudson Institute’s Max Singer, who has tried to bring Israeli officials together with Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.
Those Israelis who do envision close Israeli-Iraqi ties tend to focus their hopes outside government. One such group is the Iraqi Jewish community, both in Israel and the diaspora. About a quarter-million Jews of Iraqi origin live in Israel, and they are among the most successful and well-integrated of any community of Jews from Arab countries. When Iraq stabilizes, predicts community leader Mordechai Ben-Porat, many expatriates will be keen to travel to Baghdad and to probe business opportunities there. “Rather than frighten Iraqis with talk of diplomatic relations with Israel, we should be approaching them as former Iraqi Jews,” says Ben-Porat. “Israel should come through the back door.” He notes that Iraqi Muslims once valued Jews as business partners and as accountants: “One Jew who left Baghdad not long ago told me about a garage mechanic who refused to accept money from him for repairs because his father told him how much Jews had helped build Iraq. We will be able to do things there others can’t.”
New alliances could also involve unofficial contact with the Al Khoei Foundation, which until recently was led by the leading Shia proponent of interfaith relations, Abdel Majid Al Khoei. The foundation represents several million Shia around the world and opposes Khomeinite Shiism. Abdel Majid Al Khoei, who was recently murdered in Iraq, possibly for his support for the U.S.- British coalition against Saddam, “saw his role as helping reconcile Islam and other faiths,” says David Rosen, an Israeli rabbi who heads the American Jewish Committee’s interfaith department and who was friendly with the murdered leader. “His attitude toward Jews was very positive. He knew I was Israeli, and that didn’t matter.” Among the books listed for sale on the foundation’s website is one titled Islam Denounces Terrorism, which rejects any justification for terror in the name of the faith.
BUT, DESPITE ALL these hopes of eventual normalization between Iraq and Israel, no one here is celebrating yet. That’s not only because of uncertainty in Iraq but because the post-Saddam Middle East poses new dangers for Israel along with new opportunities. The most immediate fear is that the road map meant to revive the peace process will omit key Israeli concerns, such as insisting that the Palestinians commit themselves not just to a cease-fire but to uprooting the terrorist infrastructure. Then there’s Iran, Israel’s greatest long-term fear because of its well-developed nuclear program. The war with Iraq, notes a senior security source, may have convinced the mullahs in Iran to intensify their nuclear program: “Their conclusion is that, if Saddam had nuclear weapons like North Korea, he would not have been attacked.” What’s more, no one here is ruling out the possibility that Syria’s Bashar Al Assad may wait for U.S. pressure to subside and then reactivate Hezbollah, which has an estimated 10,000 rockets and missiles aimed at the Galilee. Israeli analysts see Bashar as a dangerous combination of inexperience and ambition who may seek to replace Saddam as the new rejectionist hero of the Arab world.
Still, for Israel, this is a time of reprieve. To begin with, there’s relief at the disappearance of a potentially existential threat. Last fall, a leading member of the defense establishment here told me that, if the Americans didn’t topple Saddam and prevent him from going nuclear, the Middle East might not survive. And the end of Saddam’s largesse has undermined Palestinian terrorism: Iraqi subsidies for the intifada—an estimated $35 million, ranging from $10, 000 for the families of those killed in clashes with Israelis to $25,000 for the families of suicide bombers—have been suspended. The collapse of the only Arab regime that dared to attack the Israeli home front in the last three decades has helped restore Israeli deterrence, which many here believe began to erode when Israel refrained from retaliating against Iraq’s 1991 Scud attacks. Given that much of the Arab world identifies Israel with the United States, America’s victory in Iraq is seen as a surrogate Israeli victory.
But the most important gain for Israel is that, for the first time since 1948, there is no longer a threat of an “eastern front,” that is, a Syrian- Iraqi military alliance. In all its wars with Israel, Syria relied on Iraq for backup. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for example, Iraqi reinforcements were so crucial that Syria nearly reconquered the Golan Heights. One result of the collapse of the eastern front will be financial: The army is contending with severe budget cuts imposed by the country’s economic crisis, and removing the Iraqi threat could help the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reduce the size of its troops. Similarly, while Ehud Barak’s willingness at Camp David to cede the Jordan Valley (the West Bank’s eastern border with Jordan) shocked Ariel Sharon almost as much as Barak’s concessions on Jerusalem, military strategists may no longer see that territory as essential to Israel’s defense. Israel’s fear has long been a joint Syrian-Iraqi invasion through Jordan. Now, without Iraqi backing, the antiquated Syrian army poses little conventional threat.
Finally, the projection of U.S. power in Iraq could have far-reaching psychological consequences among the Palestinians. In recent months, a new word has been added to the IDF’s lexicon: “consciousness.” Everyone, from the chief of staff to intelligence officers, invokes the “consciousness” of the Palestinians as a measure of the army’s success in its war against terrorism. The IDF believes Israel’s goal of convincing Palestinians that terrorism is counterproductive—a message reinforced by the fall of Saddam and America’s stiffened resolve against terrorism in the Middle East—is about to be realized. True, the terrorists are still mobilizing: Since the beginning of Passover last week, the army arrested seven terrorists actively planning suicide attacks. But, thanks to this kind of crackdown, suicide bombings are down to what Israelis call, without irony, a manageable level of terrorism. (While more than 40 major terrorist acts occurred in the first quarter of 2002, there were only five in the first quarter of this year.) Most of all, the emergence of a camp headed by Abu Mazen, which opposes Yasir Arafat’s terror strategy, is seen by the IDF as proof of victory in the war for Palestinian consciousness. “It’s a victory without trumpets,” says Dan Schueftan, a Middle East expert close to the IDF. “The generals fulfilled the extremely difficult mission of shoring up Israeli morale while demoralizing the Palestinians and fighting terrorism in very complicated terrain. You can say that we’ve won. At least this round.”
That grim optimism defines the Israeli mood today. The tape has been scraped from windows in the sealed rooms, and gas masks have been put back into storage. Unlike last Passover, which began with the Netanya seder massacre, during which 29 people died and which kept most Israelis indoors throughout the holidays, this Passover Israelis crowded the Galilee’s nature reserves, where, after a long drought, winter rains have restored dried-up rivers and waterfalls. Hezbollah missiles were just over the border, but Israelis weren’t about to allow that to interfere with their first foray into a new Middle East.
This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.