Text size

Israel's political and defense leadership is united in its desire that the Americans attack Iraq soon. Senior Israeli officials explain to their American colleagues that they must not delay the attack too much because the Middle East is expecting a war to come quickly, and if these expectations prove false, there will be negative repercussions for the entire region. But alongside the hope for "far-reaching strategic changes," as Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon put it, that would remove Iraq from the map of threats, and at the same time weaken Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Arafat. Many in Israel are concerned and suspicious about the bill the United States will serve Israel for payment on "the day after."

According to one approach, after its victory in Iraq, the American administration will be free to deal with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the spirit of the vision supplied by Bush's "road map." Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the senior staff in his ministry this week that Israel must formulate diplomatic proposals of its own so as not to find itself facing diplomatic facts on the day after the war. Senior officials in the defense establishment raise another possibility. They point to the slim chances of advancing to peace on the Palestinian track given the lack of a suitable partner, and warn the U.S. may march from Baghdad to Dimona in an attempt to appease its Arab friends by restricting Israel's nuclear capability.

A few weeks ago, a discussion of Israel's preparedness for "the day after" was held in a governmental forum. The representatives of the defense system handed out copies of George Bush Sr.'s initiative for arms control in the Middle East, published in 1991, just a few weeks after the Gulf War. The program called for restrictions on the sale of arms to the troubled area and the details of the program threatened to destroy Israel's strategic deterrence. The initiative discussed a freeze on the production of enriched plutonium and uranium, the opening of the region's nuclear facilities to international supervision, and a freeze on the acquisition, manufacture and testing of ground-to-ground missiles. Jerusalem officials were very much aware that the only nuclear reactor in the area not open to outside supervision is located in the Negev, and were shocked by the American pressure.

Bush's initiative today seems like a failed utopia. Since 1991, the arms race in the region has been stepped up. The superpowers increased the flow of arms to the Middle East, the range of missiles is longer and Iran is on the way to manufacturing a nuclear bomb. But George W. Bush's administration is trying to reverse the trend. The attack on Iraq will be the first phase of the new regional order, in which the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction will be destroyed.

The defense establishment points to the mandate given to the UN inspectors in Iraq, which is predicated on UN Security Council Resolution 687. This resolution calls for the establishment of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and makes it clear that the disarmament of Iraq is the first step in that direction. Arab countries can be expected to pressure the Americans to complete their task in Israel too, after having undermined Arab deterrence capability. Top UN weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohammed al-Baradei, constantly cite Resolution 687 as the justification for the expansion of their activities outside Iraq too.

At present, it appears very unlikely that this will occur. Israeli officials have not yet identified alarming signals from Washington. The current administration has refrained from applying pressure in the nuclear area. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton is considered a friend and supporter of Israel. The Clinton administration tried to push Israel into an international arrangement to halt the manufacture of plutonium, but met with staunch opposition by Israel. This matter has not been discussed by the current administration. The U.S. has adopted the Israeli stance, which has long cast doubt on the ability of international conventions, which by nature are dependent on the good faith of the governments involved, to halt the arms race. But it is also the nature of political circumstances to change, and Israel would be well advised to prepare for all possible developments than to find itself facing surprises and crises on "the day after."