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Dore Gold


By Dore Gold, August 30, 2010

The hardest challenge for any Israeli leader proposing what political initiatives his government should undertake is anticipating what the Middle East region will look like in the years ahead. In the Middle East, the range of uncertainty about the future is far greater than any other part of the globe. No one can be certain who will rule Egypt five years after Mubarak is no longer president. Will it be the Muslim Brotherhood? Who will lead Jordan in ten years? Because it is so difficult to answer these questions, Israel must preserve for itself security margins that are sufficient in order to protect it in a variety of future scenarios.
Right now, one of the key questions that Israel needs to answer for itself is what happens to the Middle East as the US withdraws its forces from Iraq. Useful insights into how the region may change can be obtained by looking at how other Middle Eastern states are making plans for the period after the US Army is no longer patrolling Iraqi territory. For example, at the end of July, the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat described how Saudi Arabia has started building a 812 kilometer fence along the Saudi-Iraqi border. The purpose of the fence will be to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Saudi Arabia from Iraq. While right after the start of the 2003 Iraq War, the flow of terrorists was in the reverse direction, as Saudi mujahideen sought to enter Iraq and join al-Qaeda to fight the US and its allies, now Saudi Arabia sees itself as a future target.
What are the future scenarios that worry the Saudis? The RAND Corporation prepared a study for the Office of the Secretary of Defense in September 2009 a study entitled Withdrawing from Iraq on the implications of an pull-out  for Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. It explained that the Saudi regime fears that after the US withdrawal, al-Qaeda in Iraq will re-emerge and exploit their links with the al-Qaeda network in Saudi Arabia. While al-Qaeda attacks have continued, particularly in some northern parts of Iraq, the organization has an interest in lowering its profile until the US withdraws. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, al-Qaeda in Iraq is mostly stockpiling weapons at present for future operations. Israel should recall that during the high-point of the Iraqi insurgency, al-Qaeda in Iraq had established forward positions in Jordan, in the town of Irbid,  and was seeking to recruit Palestinians in the West Bank.
But clearly, there is even a greater concern among the Saudis and their neighbors how the US withdrawal will affect Iran's hegemony over Iraq.  Will Iraq just become a satellite of  the Tehran? According to US sources, the Revolutionary Guards were actively operating on Iraqi territory until 2007, when they were threatened by the US Army and then withdrew. But if the US presence is diminished, then there is every reason to believe that they could come back. Iran may use proxy forces as well. While Israelis tend to see Hizbullah as a Lebanese force, General Petraeus testified that Hizbullah's Department 2800 has  been used by Iran to train, smuggle arms, and provide intelligence to  Iraq's Shiite militias. It would be a mistake to rule out in the future Iran using Hizbullah units based in Iraq to infiltrate Jordan or to become involved in Israel's struggle in the West Bank.
Finally, the Rand study describes the Saudi fear of "a resurgent Iraq". The Saudis let their displeasure be known in 2008 when the US planned to sell F-16 aircraft and M1-A1 tanks to the Iraqi Armed forces. The Saudis are concerned with a new Iraq Air Force with long-range strike capabilities and an Iraqi Army with power-projection forces, especially if they are under Iranian influence. It would be a good idea for Israel to look at the regional trends the Arab states are expecting, before making any decisions are made about such critical questions now under consideration like the future of the Jordan Valley, the main strategic barrier protecting Israel from the east.

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