Question to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz: "If the war starts in. . . the Gulf, will you attack Israel?" Answer: "Yes, absolutely yes."
Statement from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, our chief Arab ally in the showdown with Iraq: "We will not permit an Israeli involvement . . . in the Gulf crisis. If it [Israel] did, Egypt would take a different position."
These two assertions, coming on the day of the failed talks between Mr. Aziz and Secretary of State James Baker, underscore how central the Israeli factor is in maintaining a credible coalition determined to roll back Iraq's seizure of Kuwait. In both the military and diplomatic spheres this factor cannot be ignored, however awkward it may be for the present and future United States position in the Middle East.
According to Chairman Les Aspin of the House Armed Services Committee, Egypt and Syria have assured Washington they will not pull out of the coalition if Israel merely responds in kind against an Iraqi attack ("an eye for an eye, perhaps two eyes for an eye") and then stays out of the conflict. Duration, not magnitude, is controlling.
While Israeli President Yitzhak Shamir has stated publicly that his country "will not initiate military operations against Iraq" (agreeing, in effect, to take a first hit), Iraq has not issued any similar pledge against a pre-emptive strike against Israel. So that remains a danger during this countdown period, not least because it would constitute a final bid by Saddam Hussein to unravel the Arab sector in the 27-nation anti-Iraq coalition.
Presumably, Washington's understanding with its Arab partners in the coalition would apply to an Israeli-Iraq exchange of blows, whether it takes place before or after hostilities break out between Iraq and U.S.-led coalition forces. But Mr. Mubarak's comments illustrate how difficult it is for an Arab leader, under mounting economic pressure, to oppose a Baghdad regime that is pulling out all stops to convert its rape of Kuwait into a heroic action on behalf of an independent Palestine.
Secretary Baker went to great lengths after the Geneva meeting denounce any "linkage" between settlement of the Kuwait issue and the convening of a Middle East conference to deal with the Israeli-Arab conflict. Such linkage, he warned, would be tantamount to rewarding aggression, a highly destabilizing precedent. Yet hardly had he finished speaking when France began pressing Washington for "a very small gesture" -- precisely the kind of linked Middle East conference Mr. Baker had rejected -- as a meaning of breaking the diplomatic deadlock.
In these final days, anything is possible. What the focus on Israel demonstrates is the correctness of the Bush administration's view that the anti-Iraq coalition is so fragile it cannot be counted upon to endure until sanctions free Kuwait.