The Israel Card

January 20, 1991|By WILLIAM A. GALSTON

SADDAM HUSSEIN'S MISSILE ATTACK on Israeli targets was an act of desperation that should have surprised no one. In the press conference following the failed Geneva talks with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, declared Iraq's intention to strike at Israel soon after the onset of hostilities.

The ineffective Iraqi response to the allies' air attack made Mr. Hussein's calculation crystal clear: The only possible alternative to humiliating defeat is a widened war that shatters the coalition arrayed against him and puts in its place a confrontation between the Arab states and Israel.

The odds are that this is the latest in a series of miscalculations by Mr. Hussein. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two major Arab members of the anti-Hussein coalition, have committed their troops in pursuit of fundamental national interests, and a measured Israeli response to Iraqi attacks will not induce them to change course. Indeed, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have told the United States they would understand and accept such a response, and the U.S. would have good reason to take them at their word.

For decades, the Saudis held United States forces "over the horizon." But after the invasion of Kuwait, the Saudis swiftly reversed this policy and invited us in. The reason was simple: They concluded that to leave Saddam Hussein in possession of Kuwait was to guarantee the intimidation or overthrow of every government in the Persian Gulf region -- including their own.

Nothing has happened in the intervening months to make them change their minds. However deep their antipathy to the existence of a Jewish state, the Saudis understand that Israel today poses no direct threat to their national survival, and that Iraq does. The Saudis will remain in the anti-Hussein coalition until the danger he represents is reduced to acceptable levels -- at the very least, until he is defeated, militarily defanged and forced to withdraw behind his own borders.

While Egypt is not as directly threatened as Saudi Arabia, President Hosni Mubarak understands that a Middle East dominated by Saddam Hussein is a region in which Egypt is significantly less influential and secure.

An Iraqi victory would bring enormous pressure to bear on the linchpins of Egyptian foreign policy: economic ties with the United States and the peace treaty with Israel. Like the Saudis (if for somewhat different reasons), the Egyptians believe that the Iraqi threat far outweighs the Israeli challenge.

Unlike the Saudis and the Egyptians, the Syrians have concrete motives for confronting Israel at some point. But now is not the time.

Because the Syrian economy is in such bad shape, the Saudis have been able to offer President Hafez el Assad critical economic incentives to join the anti-Hussein coalition. Mr. Assad knows that if he shifts position significantly, the Saudis will pull the financial plug -- as they did in the cases of Jordan, Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

This is not to say that Syria, which pledged only to help defend Saudi Arabia, will join in the fight to liberate Kuwait. But given the relatively small size of the Syrian forces in the gulf, their nonparticipation doesn't make a huge difference.

Some argue that domestic public opinion will force the Syrian government to change course. But President Assad, whose power base is the small Alewite minority, has always ruled by threat rather than consent. Like Saddam Hussein, he has not hesitated to crush dissent by force -- witness the notorious slaughter of thousands in the city of Hama.

Mr. Assad no doubt shares the deep anti-Israeli feelings of the Syrian population, but there is little reason to suppose that after a lifetime of cold calculation, he will suddenly allow sentiment to dominate self-interest.

Of all the Arab countries near Iraq, the most beleaguered is surely Saddam Hussein's only ally -- the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. Faced with a collapsing economy, the cutoff of Saudi subsidies, a flood of refugees, an upsurge of Muslim fundamentalism and a restive Palestinian majority rendered desperate by financial hardship and the failure of the intifada, Jordan's King Hussein is on the ropes.

A survivor for more than three decades, he may finally have run out of room for maneuver. But while a direct confrontation between Israel and Iraq may well deliver the coup de grace to his regime, the basic forces undermining his authority were set in motion months ago.

In weighing the factors influencing the behavior of Arab states, -- we must not overlook the enormous pressures on Israel's government and people. The powerlessness of Europe's Jews in the face of the Nazi juggernaut is seared into the consciousness of every Israeli. The threat of attack from chemical weapons has special resonance for a nation born in the shadow of the Holocaust.

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