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Could Israel Start Regional War? - 2001-08-13

The latest suicide bombing in Israel intensifies the violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and appears to makes peace even more remote. There are increasing fears of a full-scale war that could involve other countries in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has plans for a stepped-up war, says George Friedman, the chairman of Stratfor, a global intelligence company. He writes that with sufficient provocation, Mr. Sharon will launch a massive attack on the Palestinians and possibly at the same time deal with two other enemies of Israel: Syria and Iraq.

There would be an international outcry over Israel's attack on its neighbors, says Mr. Friedman, but not much more. No power, least of all the United States, would stand in its way.

Steve Yetiv, professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Virginia, says part of this scenario makes sense. He says that Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres "has impressed upon Sharon the importance of not using force too soon and winning over international opinion. I believe with another major terrorist act, Sharon will put in motion plans that are more definitive in attacking the Palestinian infrastructure," said Mr. Yetiv.

The entire scenario is plausible, says Naseer Aruri, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts. He says that by attacking Iraq, Prime Minister Sharon would be acting in the U.S. interest as well as Israel's.

"Sharon would be expecting a green light from Washington," he said, "knowing that Washington's top priority in the area is Iraq and the fact that it has not really been able to achieve its objective in Iraq. So here comes Israel telling the Pentagon that we can really do it for you."

Mr. Aruri says Israel could achieve what has so far eluded U.S. efforts: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. So, he says, the United States would hardly be in a position to object to Israel's other military actions. But the attack would have its downside. "It would probably mobilize Arab masses that hitherto have not really been moving, and I think it would be destabilizing," said Professor Aruri. "There are many people in this country, even in the establishment, who feel that it could be counter-productive in the sense that it would have a very negative impact on American interests in the area."

Professor Yetiv says this goes too far. He says Israel has its hands full with the Palestinians. It has no illusions about eliminating the well-entrenched Iraqi ruler.

"If Saddam is going to be overthrown," said Mr. Yetiv, "it is going to have to be an internal operation, probably out of the military with support from some of the elites, and that has simply not come about in the last 15 years. Israel always wants to see Syria and Iraq weakened, but I do not think it is seeing this as a chance to overthrow Saddam."

Saddam Hussein, in fact, has been strengthened by the conflict, says Shafeeq Ghabra, director of the Kuwait Information office and professor of political science at Kuwait University. The Iraqi leader's rhetoric resonates with people disturbed by U.S. policy.

To counter this, says Mr. Ghabra, the United States should appear as an honest, neutral broker in a struggle that now consumes the region.