Victory in Iraq may be more crucial for Israel than U.S.

JERUSALEM — The war in Iraq may not be Israel's war, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon likes to say — but the stakes for Israel could hardly be higher.

If the United States wins a convincing victory, it could assure Israel's place in a more stable Middle East for years to come. If it does not, Israel could find itself the prime target of emboldened Middle Eastern radicals and face far greater threats to its existence than it does today.

An overwhelming American victory and the establishment of a pro-western regime would remove a nonconventional — and possibly nuclear — threat to Israel from a capricious rogue regime. Moreover, a pro-Western regime in Baghdad would finally lay to rest one of Israel's worst nightmares: a united "Eastern Front" consisting of Iraq, Syria and Jordan, with thousands of tanks ready to bear down on Israel from Jordanian territory.

With Iraq, the most powerful of the three countries, out of the equation, the balance of power would change dramatically. That in turn would make it most unlikely that Jordan could be persuaded to forego its peace treaty with Israel, leaving Syria on its own and the "Eastern Front" notion devoid of operational meaning.

A second major strategic benefit for Israel would be an American presence opposite Iran, perhaps Israel's most implacable foe. Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently that the United States had "suddenly" discovered that "Iran is much further along, with a far more robust nuclear weapons development program, than anyone said it had."

Powell was commenting on the fact that Iran managed to set up a centrifuge plant near the town of Natanz, 200 miles south of Tehran, undetected by Western intelligence agencies. The Iranians deny that they intend to develop nuclear weapons, but the centrifuges could be used to manufacture weapons-grade uranium, enabling Iran to produce several nuclear bombs a year, beginning in 2005.

A weakened Iraq, an American presence in the Persian Gulf and a credible American threat to disarm Iran might slow down the Iranian nuclear program.

American success in Iraq also might weaken the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, which threatens Israel from the north. Last year the Iranians delivered more than 700 rockets to the fundamentalist Shi'ite militia through Syria. Hezbollah now has 1,000 rockets in southern Lebanon, trained on Israeli targets.

The perception of American power and American readiness to use that power could lead Iran to rethink its ties with Hezbollah. It might also persuade Syria, not wanting to be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel, to rein in the organization.

Some Israeli analysts, including Sharon's national security adviser, Ephraim Halevy, say the ripple effect of American success even could lead to an Israel-Lebanon peace treaty, and possibly later to an accommodation with Syria.

In this optimistic scenario, the Syrians pull out of Lebanon, disarm Hezbollah and seek a peace treaty with Israel as part of a vigorous new effort to curry favor with a victorious Washington. But even if things don't go that far, the threat on Israel's northern border is likely to diminish.

Last but not least, American victory in Iraq could impact favorably on the Palestinian front. If Saddam is toppled and replaced by a less belligerent and more pragmatic regime — even one that isn't exactly friendly toward Israel — that could serve as a model for change among the Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat could be further distanced from power and a new, reformed Palestinian leadership could help promote a peaceful modus vivendi with Israel.

There are two possible negative outcomes. One is that the American campaign in Iraq proves ineffectual and Saddam survives with his regime intact. The second, less drastic possibility is if fierce fighting leaves many American casualties, emboldening Arab radicals to think that it is possible to stand up to Western might — and making the United States far more wary of future engagements in the Middle East.

In either case, the prognosis for Israel would be dire. If Saddam survives, he could go nuclear a few years down the road and might target Israel in revenge for what he calls the "American-Zionist conspiracy" against him. Even if he doesn't go nuclear, he could still seek to threaten Israel by other means.

Secondly, resurrection of the "Eastern Front" would become a theoretical option, with a strong Iraq exerting pressure on Jordan to break its ties with Israel and rejoin the rejectionist front.

U.S. failure in Iraq also would encourage Iran to ignore American pressure about its nuclear program and to produce nuclear weapons as soon as possible. Iran already has developed and tested a prototype missile, the Shihab 3, which can reach Israel with either conventional or nonconventional payloads.

The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah triangle also would get a boost from American failure in Iraq. The recently published Argentinian Intelligence Services' (SIDE) account of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires by Iranian-controlled Hezbollah operatives indicates that the present rulers of Iran will stop at nothing when it comes to Israel.

According to SIDE'S 11-volume investigation, Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was personally involved in planning and approving the attack.

Indeed, an American setback in Iraq would encourage radical terrorists throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East, to step up their campaigns — and Israel would be a prime target.

As one pundit put it in the Israeli media: "From an Israeli point of view, the success of the war is imperative. If pictures" of American POWs "like those we saw on Sunday continue to stream out of Iraq, it won't be long before extremists in the Arab world start scenting blood and 'join the party.' If that happens, the northern border could heat up, motivation to carry out terror in Israel will grow and moderate Arab regimes, whose stability is vital for Israel, will be at risk.''

Indeed, the radical threat could take its toll on moderate Arab regimes too, leaving Israel in a region more volatile than ever, exposed to terrorist and possibly even nonconventional weapons attack from all quarters.

Israelis are keeping their fingers crossed for America. But they could just as easily be keeping their fingers crossed for themselves.