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Israel: Post Election Analysis

An IZAIA Briefing With Policy Expert Kenneth Pollack
Genever McBain
(New York, NY -- December 01, 2006) -- Earlier this week, the National Israel, Zionist and International Affairs (IZAIA) Department sponsored a special briefing by policy expert, Dr. Kenneth Pollack. Dr. Pollack is Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies. He is a noted Intelligence analyst on the Middle East, has served in various governmental roles, written extensively on related topics and provided analysis for CNN.

In his briefing to Hadassah, Dr. Pollack offered analysis and insight into the situation in Israel and the Middle East, in the wake of the recent U.S. elections.

The following is a summary of the material covered in Dr. Pollack’s briefing:

At the moment, Israelis see both their region in crisis and U.S. politics in flux. The upheaval and uncertainty in U.S. politics, created by the elections and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, have only exacerbated the turmoil Israelis have been confronting during the last year. Ariel Sharon’s incapacitation, the war with Hizbollah, the problems with Hamas, and the violence emanating from Gaza, have all called into question much of Israeli policy and created a sense of unease.

With respect to Iraq, Israelis see a country that is already in a state of civil war. In fact, it is rapidly descending into a Bosnia-like situation. In Dr. Pollack’s estimation, it is clear that major or dramatic changes on both the part of the United States and Iraq would be required to turn the situation around. However, it is unclear that such changes are even possible. If they are not, both the United States and Israel will be faced with questions about what to do as a result.

Israelis recognize that even if the United States decides to walk away from the civil war in Iraq, it will be impossible for Israel to do so. Israel’s geographic proximity to Iraq is such that Israel could not isolate itself the way the United States could. Israelis are intimately familiar with the broader effects of civil war, in particular, its habit of destabilizing neighboring countries. Dr. Pollack cited Lebanon’s civil war as an example of an internal conflict that ultimately grew into a regional war. Israelis are trying hard to brace for the likely fallout of an Iraqi civil war. Such fallout could include the destabilization of Jordan and problems in Saudi Arabia, among others. Each could be “disastrous” for Israel.

Dr. Pollack noted that Iran has been playing a role in Iraq’s growing civil unrest, although it is neither the biggest problem nor greatest destabilizing factor in Iraq. Iran does, however, remain a large problem for Israel, both because of Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and because of Iran’s burgeoning nuclear capabilities. The Iranian regime has recently gained strength, both from the United States’ problems in Iraq and from Iran’s support of Hizbollah in the war with Israel. According to Dr. Pollack, the worse the situation in Iraq gets, the more credibility the United States will lose in the international arena. Consequently, it will be harder for the United States to hold the international community together in an effort to control and sanction Iran.

Although Dr. Pollack is very concerned about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, he does not believe that a nuclear Iran would constitute an existential threat to either Israel or the United States. According to his assessment of the situation, “the Iranians are bad, but they are not crazy, reckless or imprudent.” Dr. Pollack contrasted the Iranian leadership with Saddam Hussein, whom he characterized as “utterly reckless” and imprudent in the realm of foreign policy. Currently, Iran is pursuing nuclear weaponry for primarily defensive reasons, much like Pakistan did to deter India. However, if and when Iran obtains nuclear weapons, the regime would be emboldened to take aggressive, antagonistic action, both regionally and internationally. Iran would be less concerned than it is now about the threat of Israeli – or American – retaliation.

With respect to U.S. policy, there are deep debates in Washington regarding what to do in the Middle East. Dr. Pollack characterized the recent mid-term elections as a defeat for Republicans rather than as a win for Democrats. In his estimation, many Independents supported Democratic candidates primarily because they were not happy with the Bush Administration and its Iraq policy. However, these voters were not necessarily voting “for” a specific Democratic policy approach to the war in Iraq. As a result, Republican losses only indicate where voters do not want to go, rather than clearly outlining a new policy direction.

Dr. Pollack does not believe that the election will have a tremendous impact on the Bush Administration’s modus operandi. The Administration does not appear to be altering its current course of action in Iraq. Rather, it is working to diffuse criticism about U.S. policy. Newly appointed Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, will likely try to make some changes in the way the war is waged, but it is not yet clear if he will be successful in his efforts. Dr. Pollack quoted a friend of his in the U.S. military when he said that, with respect to Iraq, the “problem is that we can’t stay, we can’t leave and we can’t fail.” At this point there are no good answers on Iraq, only hard choices to be made among bad options.

Much of U.S. policy will be driven by what is done in Iraq, and Dr. Pollack anticipates that Washington could be very divided in the next two years. Israelis are watching this closely because they recognize that U.S. policy on Iraq will ultimately impact Israel – and that the impact is unlikely to be positive. Among others, there are concerns that Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq will hurt the United States’ ability to deal with Iran on a range of issues. Consequently, Israel will be unable to count on the United States to manage the Iranian threats, which would have permitted Israel to devote more of its resources to dealing with the Palestinians. According to Dr. Pollack, “Israelis have a great deal of trepidation about what will happen.”

Iran’s influence in Iraq could make the prospect of direct talks with the Iranians attractive to the U.S. Administration. Although Iran is “enjoying watching us bleed” in Iraq, as a neighboring country, Iran does share the strong U.S. interest in preventing a civil war in Iraq. President Bush has indicated a willingness to engage in talks with the Iranians about stabilizing Iraq, but only under certain conditions. Namely, a commitment by the Iranians to suspend their nuclear activities. If direct talks with Iran were an option, the question would then become, “what is the nature of those talks?” The U.S. would need to explore the question of what it is willing to do for the Iranians in exchange for an Iranian commitment to help calm the unrest in Iraq. Regardless, it is important to remember that although Iran has some influence in Iraq, channeling Iranian resources is not a panacea. Iran cannot solve the Iraq problem for the United States. And thus, the United States should not be willing to compromise too much in exchange for Iranian help in Iraq.

Dr. Pollack also addressed the implications of the recent ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians, and the potential for civil war within Gaza. Dr. Pollack believes that it was useful for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to make the offer of a ceasefire. Israelis have been caught off-guard by the ineffectiveness of the unilateral disengagement policy. As a result, Mr. Olmert’s willingness to attempt a ceasefire allows Israelis to feel that, in some respect, they are working proactively to address the situation with the Palestinians. It also allows the Prime Minister to express his interest in seeking a non-military solution to the conflict.

In addition, the ceasefire could help curb the growing radicalization of the Palestinian population. Israel has been exerting significant pressure on the Palestinians since the Hamas-led government came to power. According to Dr. Pollack, this pressure has been pushing the once divided Palestinian population closer together – toward the radical wing of Hamas. Despite the potential it presents, most Israelis are very wary about whether or not the Gaza ceasefire will actually produce anything.

Dr. Pollack also addressed the issue of the missing Israeli soldiers. According to Dr. Pollack, groups release their hostages when they realize there is no longer any political or tactical advantage to holding on to their captives. The more attention the issue draws, the less likely hostages are to be released. Consequently, maintaining a low profile and actually down-playing the issue of the missing soldiers in the media, etc., is the best means of securing their release.

Hadassah and its members stand in solidarity with the families of the missing soldiers, Gilad Schalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

For more information on the kidnapped soldiers, you may visit the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website at: http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/2000_2009/2004/1/Israeli+MIAs.htm

 

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