By Orly Halpern
5 January 2007
Jerusalem - Although few tears were shed in Israel over
Saddam Hussein's death last week, a small but growing
chorus -- including government officials, academics and
Iraqi emigres -- is warning that Israel could find itself
in more danger with him gone, and that it might even
regret having welcomed his toppling.
"If I knew then what I know today, I would not have
recommended going to war, because Saddam was far less
dangerous than I thought," said Haifa University political
scientist Amatzia Baram, one of Israel's leading Iraq
Saddam was feared and reviled in Israel, both as a tyrant
and as an enemy of the Jewish state. He demonstratively
supported Palestinian terrorists, and few have forgiven
his bombarding of Israel with Scud missiles during the
1991 Gulf War.
"Retrospectively, justice has been done," Deputy Defense
Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel Radio this week. Still,
he cautioned, Israel must now be concerned "about what is
liable to happen in the future."
Saddam's death, Sneh warned, could lead to "a
reinforcement of Iranian influence in Iraq." He said that
Iraq had turned into a "volcano of terror" following the
war, with "destructive energies" that could spill over
into Jordan and Israel.
Such misgivings, though rarely aired publicly for fear of
offending Washington, reach high into Israel's security
establishment. Yuval Diskin, director of the Shin Bet
security service, told a group of students in a military
preparatory program last May that Israel might come to
regret its support for the American-led invasion in March
"When you dismantle a system in which there is a despot
who controls his people by force, you have chaos," Diskin
said, unaware that the meeting was secretly recorded. "I'm
not sure we won't miss Saddam." The tape was later
broadcast on Israeli television.
Although Iraq was long feared as a formidable enemy of the
Jewish state, on the eve of the invasion it was poor and
powerless. Palaces across the country were made of cheap
plaster. Nuclear and biological weapons seen as threats by
the Bush administration were nonexistent.
Baram, the Iraq expert, said that before the war started,
he advised American officials of problems they might face
afterward. What he did not anticipate, he said, was the
scale of terrorism that would spread across the country,
calling it "much, much more than I expected."
Since the invasion, chaos has swept Iraq. Terrorist bombs
in public places, sectarian attacks between Shi'ites and
Sunnis, and ordinary criminal violence kill tens of people
daily. One study estimates that some 650,000 Iraqis have
died violently since the war, killed either by American
and allied forces, terrorists or criminals.
Even some of those who suffered directly from Saddam's
brutality told the Forward that in retrospect, Israel was
better off with him than without.
Baghdad-born Avraham Eini was a teenager when his father
was arrested and tortured by Saddam's security agents in
the 1970s. "He later died of his wounds," said 54-year-old
Eini, who had escaped with his family and settled in Ramat
Gan. Two decades later, in 1991, Iraqi Scud missiles fell
200 yards from his house.
Eini said he felt a sense of "revenge and relief" when
Saddam was executed last week. Yet, he said, "Israel would
be safer today if Saddam stayed in power."
Saddam and his Ba'athist revolutionary colleagues came to
power in 1968, a year after the crushing defeat of Arab
armies by Israel in the Six-Day War. Vice president and
strongman of the regime, Saddam had an attitude that was
decidedly anti-Israel, following Ba'athist ideology and
postwar Arab sentiment. One of his first notorious moves
was to hang 17 alleged spies, nine of them Jewish.
Throughout the 1970s Saddam's anti-Israel rhetoric
continued, along with his hounding of Iraqi Jews and his
support for the Arab Liberation Front, a militant
Palestinian group that shelled Israel from southern
Lebanon. He took full control as president in 1979,
escalating his rhetoric and brutality. Shortly afterward,
Iraq was invaded by neighboring Iran, touching off a
bloody, eight-year war that inflicted huge hardship on
Iraqis and Iranians alike. Saddam further tightened his
regime and launched a furious arms race.
In 1981, alarmed at Iraq's nuclear weapons project, Israel
sent warplanes to destroy the nuclear plant at Osirak,
fueling the dictator's hostility.
A few years into the Iran-Iraq war, however, Saddam
moderated his anti-Israel stance. Some observers believe
he merely hoped to curry favor with Washington. Others say
that even so, it might have led to a thaw. Jews in Iraq
were now protected by a special unit and had a phone
number to call if harassed. "Nobody could touch us," said
Emad Levy, who lived in Iraq at the time.
In 1982 Saddam told a visiting congressman that he
supported the "existence of an independent Palestinian
state accepted by the Palestinians." He added, "It is also
necessary to have a state of security for the Israelis."
Israeli officials publicly dismissed the feelers as a
Soon after, Saddam moved closer to Egypt, which he had
previously snubbed for making peace with Israel. Iraq's
government-controlled newspapers began using the word
"Israel" in place of "the Zionist enemy."
In early 1986, Israel's then-prime minister, Shimon Peres,
a supporter of secret American-Iran arms deals, stopped
supplying Iran and sent aides to meet secretly with Iraqi
officials. The contacts were reported in the Israeli press
but firmly denied by both sides. "Nothing came of the
meetings," Baram said, "but they showed that something was
Later in 1986, when the hawkish Yitzhak Shamir became
prime minister, the meetings were shut down.
Today such talks are inconceivable. There is no one to
talk to in a nation collapsing into warring factions.
Following the invasion, Israel no longer faces a military
threat from Iraq. But terrorist threats have moved closer.
Last year, Iraq-based terrorists staged a deadly triple
bombing attack on Amman hotels, and Al Qaeda attacked an
American naval target in the Jordanian port of Aqaba, next
door to Eilat.
The Iraqi threat was once quite serious. Iraq sent troops
to fight in three wars against Israel, beginning in 1948.
After the Iraq-Iran cease-fire in 1988, Iraq started
rebuilding its arsenal -- including its nuclear project.
But after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, America led an
attack in 1991, forcing it to withdraw and to accept
intrusive arms inspections, and punishing economic
Even at their peak, Saddam's nuclear ambitions were not
necessarily aimed at Israel, experts say. "I never
believed that Iraq stood to attack Israel," said Yoram
Meital, a professor of Middle East studies at Ben-Gurion
University. Even when it lobbed 39 Scuds at Tel Aviv,
"Iraq attacked Israel in the first Gulf War in order to
cause Israel to attack Iraq and bring the disintegration
of the international coalition against Iraq" by prompting
Arab states to withdraw.
"He could have shot chemical weapons at Israel, but he
didn't," said political scientist Eitan Barak, a security
specialist at Hebrew University.
Exaggeration of such threats and grievances, Barak and
other say, led American policy-makers, with Israel's
blessing, to replace a bad situation with a much worse
"Saddam's regime was preferable -- not only for us but for
all the states in the region, except for maybe the
Iranians," Barak said. "Saddam held together a divided,
tribal, hostile state of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. He
was a single man who made all decisions, and he was a
rational leader. The moment he was gone, everything fell