Tel Aviv Diary: In hindsight, Iraq war only benefited Iran

March marks the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time of the invasion, Israel remained in the midst of the Second Intifada—a period during which over 1,000 Israelis were killed by terrorists. Israelis still had vivid memory of the first Gulf War, during which Iraq had launched dozens of missiles at Israel, many striking Tel Aviv. Most Israelis, like the majority of Americans, were enthusiastic about the American attack.

Israelis all had gas masks stored in the their homes, in case Iraq were to fire chemical weapons at Israel, as it was clear to everyone that Saddam Hussein was no friend of Israel. Less enamored at the time of the attack were the members of the Israeli security establishment. They feared that if Saddam Hussein and the Sunnis, who ruled Iraq, were eliminated, the country with the most to gain would be Iran—considered to be a mortal enemy of Israel and whose nuclear program posed even greater concern.

With the perspective of time, it is clear that from Israel’s point-of-view, the US-Iraq invasion was one of the worst blunders in recent history. The main strategic winner of the war was Iran. Its Sunni enemy was no longer. In addition, thanks to George W. Bush administration’s rapid push for “democracy” in Iraq, the Shiites, who constitute the largest Iraqi ethnic/religious group, now control the country and have assured that Iraq remains closely aligned with Iran.

Furthermore, partly as a result of the American failures in Iraq, much of the Sunni population became radicalized and proved to be fertile recruiting grounds for ISIS. The war, which was rightfully considered unsuccessful by most in the U.S., had sapped the willingness of Americans to be involved in the Middle East, thus providing an entree to both Iran and Russia. Moreover, the willingness of America and the rest of the world to allow the slaughter of innocents to go on has allowed Assad the war criminal to regain control of Syria—with the help of the Iranians and the Russians. Consequently, Iran, through its proxies—i.e. Hezbollah in Lebanon and now Assad in Syria—sits on two of Israel’s four borders.

0702_george_bush U.S. President George W. Bush holds first news conference after reelection, at the White House compound in Washington, November 4, 2004. Larry Downing/Reuers

While the impact of the above-mentioned events is clear, the American invasion of Iraq had another consequence for Israel. President Bush believed that American actions could bring about a new democratic Middle East. Therefore, Bush pressured the Israeli government, then led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to allow democratic elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel pointed out that according to the terms of the Oslo Accords, Hamas was not allowed to run in the elections (since only organizations that recognized Israel and accepted the accords were allowed to run. Hamas did neither.) However, the Bush administration insisted Hamas be allowed to take part. As a result, Hamas won the election and seized control over the Gaza Strip two years later.

While the heady hope that filled the post-Oslo days ended with the bombings of the second Intifada, the victory of Hamas in the election and the subsequent seizure of the Gaza Strip has made the possibility of Israel reaching an agreement with the Palestinians almost impossible to imagine. The history of the conflict has consistently been one in which the more militant actors have always had veto power over the more sober elements. Thus, reaching any accord while Hamas rules half the Palestinian population seems far-fetched.

The political landscape has also resulted in the “pragmatic” leadership sounding ever more extreme. While I have never had great confidence in Donald J. Trump administration’s foreign policy, I have always believed that Trump is sincere in his desire to “make the greatest deal.” And although I thought that President Trump could have handled the announcement on relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem better, the Palestinian leadership needlessly climbed ever higher up a tree in their response to the declaration, effectively cutting themselves off from any potential peace plan that Trump might propose.

Subsequently, Palestinian rhetoric reached its apex this week, when President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority called American Ambassador David Friedman “a son of dogs.” Why would the President of the PA call a close confidant of a vindictive American President “a son of dogs”? Because Abbas had to show he will not be pushed around by the Americans. Whether coincidently, or really not, Abbas’ attack on the U.S. Ambassador to Israel came as part of a speech in which he said that it is impossible to reach an agreement with Hamas in Gaza, since they are not willing to give up their arms.

So here we are… 15 years later… without a peaceful democratic Middle East, but rather, one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians have been slaughtered not far from our borders; in which the enemy who has vowed to destroy us is closer than ever to our borders; and the possibility of peace with the Palestinians—whether thanks to the quest for the “greatest deal” or something completely different—seems a mere fanciful dream. 

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

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