At some point in nearly every discussion about Saddam Hussein's strategic options, someone raises the possibility that the embattled despot may make an attempt to slaughter as many Israelis as he can.
Should that happen, everyone quickly agrees, it would be best if Israel refrained from retaliating. Why? Because if the Israelis respond, comes the reflexive reply, that would "play into Saddam's hands" "widen the war," "force Arab leaders to side with Saddam," and "ignite the Middle East."
This is the conventional wisdom. And it's nonsense. As analysis, it is illogical. As policy, it is counter-productive. A few moments of reflection will reveal why.
Start with the practical: Israel gets hit, Israel hits back against Saddam. Now: Which Arab nation is then going to go to war with Israel?
Egypt? There is no way that Hosni Mubarak is going to send Egyptian tanks and troops rumbling across the Sinai. He recalls that when Gamal Abdel-Nasser did that in 1967, Egypt lost thousands of soldiers as well as the entire peninsula. Mubarak won't head down that tortured path again — certainly not to defend Saddam.
Syria? Bashar al-Assad is many things but he's no dummy. He knows that if he provokes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he can expect to see the turret of an Israeli tank poking through the window of his Damascus office.
Lebanon, sadly, is currently Syria's vassal. For now, the government of Lebanon will follow Assad's instructions.
Jordan? No, King Abdullah II will not gamble with his throne. Because Israel and Jordan have had relatively cordial relations over the past 30 years, Israel has refrained from making the case that Jordan itself ought to be seen as the other half of a "two-state solution" to the "Palestinian problem."
But if Abdullah were to attack Israel, then Ariel Sharon might take the advice of his more bellicose colleagues and begin to point out that the country now called Jordan, previously called Trans-Jordan, is really trans-Jordanian Palestine, that is to say the eastern section of the British Mandate of Palestine. In fact, Jordan occupies more than 75% of the area defined as Palestine by the European powers in 1917 and entrusted to the British. (The name "Palestine" was coined by the Romans after they put down a couple of Jewish revolts in the first century A.D.; it refers to the Philistines, a people who once lived along the Mediterranean coast and who disappeared many centuries ago.)
What's more, the majority of Jordan's population is Palestinian Arab, the remainder mainly Bedouins, an ethnic group found throughout the Middle East. So the only thing un-Palestinian about Jordan is the King himself — his ancestors were the rulers of Mecca until the Saudis threw them out of Arabia and the British gave him Trans-Jordan as a consolation prize in 1921. Presumably, Abdullah has no plans to exercise a "right of return."
That does it for the countries that border the Jewish state. If Saudi Arabia, Libya, or Iran wants to get into a war with Israel on behalf of Saddam, they'll have to send their forces marching through these frontline states. That's not really an option.
So that's why the conventional analysis is wrong. Now here's why it's also wrong-headed: A real and durable peace in the Middle East can come about only after Israel's neighbors give up the dream of wiping Israel off the map, after they accept Israel's existence.
Among other things, that means publicly recognizing the fact that Israel has the same right as any other nation to respond to an unprovoked attack, not least an unprovoked attack from a tyrant who also has tried to eliminate Kuwait and has picked fights with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others.
With that in mind, American diplomats should now be delivering a message in the capitals of the Middle East. It would go something like this:
"Look, Israel is a sovereign nation, and it's going to be your neighbor for a long time. Get used to it. And start getting your people used to it — including those on your fabled 'street.' If you don't, no 'peace process' is going to get anywhere, so don't expect us to even try.
"It's time for you to deal with the fact that if terrorism against
Israeli civilians continues, Israel will have no choice but to continue its counter-terrorism operations in the West Bank and Gaza. Al-Jazeera will show the pictures at 11:00 and your people will blame you as much as us for what they see. So think again about whether terrorism is still in your best interest."
"There's an old Western joke: 'What do you do if a mountain lion attacks your mother-in-law? Answer: If the lion attacks, he's on his own.' Same goes here. You may not like Israel but if Saddam is foolish enough to attack her, that's his mistake — don't let it be yours.
"One more thing: At a time when Saddam is at war with America, of course he'd like to have you on his side. But we don't want that. And you don't want that. Do we understand each other?"
A simple yes or no should conclude the conversation — and could, finally, after more than half a century, begin a meaningful peace process.