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May 19, 2003

Beware of the lull, By Omer Bartov

(If your blood is boiling upon hearing about the roadmap and the beginnings of its practical implamentation you need some cooling off. This is what the following excellent analysis of the global parameters intends to help you achieve).

"Before the war in Iraq began, its opponents warned of catastrophic losses in civilian and military lives, hundreds of burning oil wells, and uprisings in the proverbial "Arab street."

Its supporters promised a swift campaign, rapid establishment of the rule of law, and a domino effect of democracy that would change the realities of the Middle East.

As usual, conditions after the war do not correspond to either set of predictions. The campaign was swift and decisive, losses were relatively low, and most oil wells survived intact. What the Arab street will do is hard to say, but it neither rose up nor welcomed the Americans and the former colonial masters from the United Kingdom. The rule of law still awaits enforcement, and democracy seems about as likely as an Islamic theocracy in Iraq. The domino effect of the latter would hardly feature high on the list of optimistic scenarios.

In Israeli government and military circles there were high expectations from the war. To be sure, the military threat posed to Israel by Iraq has greatly diminished, and there ought to be general relief about the collapse of Saddam's regime. But the main problem faced by Israel is the continuing struggle with the Palestinians and the peculiar strategic-diplomatic situation that it has created. The Iraq war may have an effect on this condition, but possibly a very different one from that envisioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon.

Israel finds itself today receiving almost unprecedented support from the greatest and most dominant superpower in history. This gives it a tremendous lever in realizing its goals. Conversely, Israel is more isolated than it has been in decades from the rest of the world. Moreover, Israeli dependence on the United States is not merely diplomatic and political, but also economic and military. If the United States did not send spare parts for a variety of hi-tech weapons used by the Israeli military, they would cease working within weeks.

It is hard to imagine the Israeli army functioning without its American-built Apache helicopters and F-16s, whether against the Palestinians or in an all-out war. Nor could Israel turn to anyone else for help: they would lack the parts and even if they did have them would hardly be willing to sell to a country that has become the pariah of international politics beyond the Washington DC beltway. Or would the Israeli air force go back to using the French Mirage?

The United States, for its part, took an enormous gamble in attacking Iraq against the consensus of the UN and world opinion. To be sure, military victory seemed to justify the hawks. But the next step calls for very different tactics. The ultimate success of American policy in the Middle East depends more than anything else on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The same cool, cynical, arrogant technocrats at the Pentagon who advocated, planned, and executed the war in Iraq are now weighing their options in the Middle East. They have little to say about Jews, Zionism, or the approach of the Messiah. They only have America's strategic interests, as they perceive them, in mind.

This could be good for the Jews. If the United States wants to succeed in the Middle East, it must use its unprecedented clout to force the Arab states, the Palestinians, and Israel, to accept a resolution to the conflict. None of the parties is capable of reaching such a resolution on their own, and none will accept its imposition without a massive show of force and determination.

A settlement involving Israel, the Palestinians, and the Syrians, the outlines of which are and have been clear now for years, will indeed be good not only for these parties but also for the policies of the United States in the region and for the possible, though gradual, liberalization and democratization of the Arab world.

IF THE United States chooses not to use its power and lets the Israelis and Palestinians continue with their endless, bloody, and hopeless squabble, the effects on American policies in the region and on the region's states and populations as a whole may indeed be as disastrous as had been predicted before the war. The forces of darkness waiting in the wings (and already gathering in the mosques and city squares) will turn against the supporters of modernization and liberalization in the name of anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism, and anti-Zionism. The United States will not be able or willing to see the constant drain of blood and money that continued occupation will entail, and will leave the region. Presented as a defeated tyrant, it will lose its credibility in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Israel will not only be left with an unresolved crisis, but will experience an even greater erosion of public support in the United States. If now it is the liberal circles in America that have turned increasingly anti-Israeli since the beginning of the second intifada and the attack on the Twin Towers, the failure of the Rumsfeldites will turn the technocrats and conservatives against it as well. Left to fend for itself in an alien and hostile world, Israel will eventually be forced to accept a solution compared to which anything imposed by the United States now will look like the epitome of the Zionist dream.

As a more immediate danger to Israel, one must recall the period between 1967 and 1973. There is no doubt that Israel now seems to enjoy an overwhelming military superiority in the region (not least because of its American-made hi-tech weapons). But it is also strategically highly vulnerable. Unfortunately, most generals (including those turned politicians) are more concerned with tactics. Strategy is several notches higher, and includes politics, economics, national morale, and so forth, in the calculus of war-making capacity.

Israel is vulnerable politically because it is entirely dependent on the goodwill of or unchanging view of national interests by the United States. It is militarily vulnerable because it has no strategic depth. Moreover, the war of 1973 proved that while Blitzkrieg (as in 1967) is Israel's forte, total war is beyond its capacity.

The Iraq war made Israel's eastern front safer. But if it lulls politicians, generals, and the public into a false sense of security, its long-term consequences will be dire. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin understood in the last two years of his life that, in the long run, Israel would become increasingly vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction whose ultimate dissemination will be impossible to stop. Only a political solution will thwart this danger.

In this sense, Israel must turn the Clausewitzian dictum - according to which the object of war is the attainment of a policy - on its head and declare politics as the continuation (or preferably prevention) of war by other means."

The writer is professor of history at Brown University, RI, and the author, most recently, of Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories. (Cornell UP, 2003).