When he returned from his assignment in Washington in the spring, former ambassador David Ivry believed that the American military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be influenced by the upcoming congressional elections. Ivry then expected President George W. Bush to wait for the economic results of the second quarter, and to behave in accordance with them. If the American economy improved, Bush would ride to the polls on the economic success; and if the recession continued, he would pull out the Iraqi threat.
Ivri's evaluation was validated. The American economy is stagnating, but the White House has pushed the economy to the political margins, and has brought to the fore the discussion of the goals of the war against Iraq. The Republicans are going to the polls as patriots who are fighting terror, and the Democrats are stuck as a frustrated opposition.
Sometimes it seems as though Saddam was invented by sly campaign managers as a wonder drug for political distress. The successful maneuver carried off by Bush and his advisers has brought them imitators in the offices of the prime minister and the foreign minister in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres are afraid of early elections that are likely to send them into retirement, but their failing government is having a hard time demonstrating achievements, and the public is increasingly interested in seeing the government's term shortened. And then came the talk from America about an impending war with Iraq, supplying new momentum to the team of old warhorses. Peres, according to his assistants, emerged from his weekly meeting with the prime minister on Sunday "grinning from ear to ear."
Every headline about smallpox vaccinations and anti-radiation pills suppresses worries about the country's urgent problems. What's the point of discussing the recession if we're all exposed to a biological weapons attack? In the face of such a mortal danger, of course there's no point in talking about early elections, and Peres and Sharon can imprison their adversary, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer - whose strength lies in his threat to quit - in the government. It's no wonder that the two have called on Bush "not to delay" the attack on Iraq, and that the defense minister has tried to push aside the clouds of the Iraqi threat and divert attention to his contacts with the Palestinians.
The prime minister and the chief of staff disagree in their evaluation of the threat. Sharon says that Iraq is "the greatest risk" for Israel. Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon is less worried about Saddam, but loses sleep over the conflict with the Palestinians and Iran's growing nuclear capability. Nevertheless, the two agree that Israel must respond to an Iraqi attack this time. The prime minister explained this week to a guest from the United States that the Israeli public "will not accept the lack of a response" and that there is a need "to rehabilitate our deterrence." The chief of staff wants "a demonstration of capabilities that will demand a price."
The interminable war with the Arabs has placed Israel in a bind. There is always an old trauma in the inventory, which must be erased in order "to rehabilitate our deterrence." The Lebanon War erased the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, and Operation Defensive Shield made us forget the humiliation of the withdrawal from Lebanon. Only the account with Saddam is still open, the conflict with the Palestinians is stuck, and there is nothing like a good "demonstration of capabilities" in Iraq to boost our morale.
Israel has a vital interest in eliminating the hostile regime in Iraq, and in any case, must support the United States. But its desire to participate in the war is foolish and harmful. Nobody will be convinced of the reliability of Israeli deterrence if the Israel Defense Forces deals a small additional blow to Iraq under the protection of the American war on Saddam.
Threats of an Israeli reaction are logical if they are designed to pressure America to agree to a better security treaty and a reliable "nuclear umbrella" in response to a widespread chemical or biological attack. But Sharon is not interested in that. His government has sanctified the principle of "military freedom of action" and now threatens to drag Israel into an unnecessary adventure in Iraq, mainly for reasons of political convenience.
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