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Don't pay with Israeli currency

Neill Lochery National Post On the eve of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the late Yitzhak Rabin articulated the concerns of both left and right in Israel that the international community would link the outcome of the Gulf crisis to the Arab-Israeli dispute. Mr. Rabin stated, in short, that the greatest danger was that the world would pay Saddam Hussein with Israeli currency.

These comments retain great relevance to the current situation and the links between the 1991 war and the current war do not end there. During the Persian Gulf War the United States (or so it thought) persuaded Israel to remain outside the coalition, despite coming under attack. The U.S.-led administration of George Bush Sr. viewed Israel as an obstacle to the maintenance of the Allied coalition and in particular the inclusion of Arab forces. In order for the war not to be viewed as the West versus Saddam, it was important to allow fellow Muslims to undertake some of the killing.

The reality was very different. Though not indifferent to American lobbying, the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, had already met in secret with King Hussein in London and agreed to a deal whereby Israel would not violate Jordanian sovereignty (both land and air). In return, Jordan agreed not to allow any third party to enter its country from the east (Iraq). The agreement was only acknowledged some years later with interviews Mr. Shamir gave after leaving politics. The United States had no idea about the agreement, nor did the Israeli Cabinet.

In present terms, this tends to cast question marks over whether the United States can persuade Israel this time to remain out of the fray. Though no one, not least, Colin Powell, has had the courage to say this in public yet, the West needs to put Muslims in the front line -- to avoid the charge of Holy War. Israel will once more have to remain on the sidelines. Though the outcome of this battle is central to Israel's existence, the Jewish state will be expected to refrain from taking unilateral action even if attacked by Islamic extremists.

This time, however, the threat to Israel is global and does not come solely from Saddam. Israel, as a result, will not conclude a deal to remain outside any coalition efforts. The lack of understanding in U.S. circles of this fact is further illustrated by the point that Cabinet pressure on Mr. Shamir during the Persian Gulf War would have led to Israeli reprisals had it not been for cloudy skies above Baghdad.

Similarities with the Gulf War continue. Prior to the war the PLO, led by Yasser Arafat, was in serious trouble. Internal battles between so-called moderates and hard-liners were reaching a peak. Mr. Arafat's apparent public rejection of violence and the opening of diplomatic channels had not brought the desired fruits. Israel still refused to talk to it, the Intifada was running out of steam and there was popular support for the leading anti-Western figure (for Saddam Hussein now read bin Laden).

In 1991, Mr. Arafat succumbed to this popular support and backed Saddam -- a mistake that almost bankrupted the PLO and isolated it diplomatically until the signing of the Oslo Accords of 1993. This time, after a "shaky start," Mr. Arafat has moved quickly to place the Palestinian Authority publicly in the American camp. Potentially damaging images of rallies of support for bin Laden -- including one where the U.S. flag was burned -- have been suppressed. In 1991, the Palestinians cheered each scud missile as it flew over the West Bank on its way to Tel Aviv. In 2001, if Israel is attacked by bin Laden or his allies, there will be widespread rejoicing from Ramallah to the Gaza Strip.

Israel needs to be careful in its responses to the United States and in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Saturday's headline in the usually pro-Israel Daily Telegraph read "Setback for Bush as Israel says no to Arafat meeting." Clearly, in media circles, there is a growing linkage between the military response of the United States to last week's atrocities and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In a recent interview, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made it clear he is well aware of this fact. By not allowing his Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, to meet with Mr. Arafat at this stage he has sent two clear messages to the United States and the Palestinian Authority. First, the Israeli government will not negotiate under fire whatever the circumstances -- Mr. Sharon believes, correctly, that this would only encourage Mr. Arafat to undertake further attacks. Second, that Israel will not alter the course of its war against terrorism just to suit the political needs of the coalition-building process in the United States.

Talk in the United States of countries such as Iran and Syria -- that remain on the State Department lists of states that sponsor or harbour terrorist organizations -- participating in the alliance is obscene. This is rendered even more worrying if such countries are included at the expense of Israel. It sounds more like a Fellini movie. Will Iran have to bomb itself in mid-campaign if it is found that bin-Laden (as appears likely) had direct links with Hezbollah and Tehran? Israel will have to manoeuvre carefully if it is not to emerge as the big political loser from bombings that were aimed as much against it as the United States.

Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College in London.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2001

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