On a single day during Passover 1986, most of Israel's major dailies ran oddly identical front-page stories describing a secret negotiation, recently collapsed, between Israel and Iraq. Iraq, it was said, had approached Israeli representatives in New York, asking that Jerusalem switch its covert support from Iran to Iraq in the war between them. In return, Iraq would exchange ambassadors with Israel after it won the war. Israel reportedly demanded recognition now, not later, and then ended the contacts abruptly after Washington caught wind of them.
Nothing further was reported. Israeli officials questioned about it responded, even years later, with studied, bristling silence. But in the spring of 2000, during not-so-secret Israeli-Palestinian talks leading up to Camp David, Israeli papers again reported Iraq-Israel contacts. Baghdad was said to be offering to absorb 300,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon if Israel would speak for Iraq in Washington and help soften American hostility. This time, Israel reportedly backed away even without being told.
No, the stories aren't confirmed, but there is a telling logic to them. They echo something we've known all along about Saddam Hussein but often forget: that he is a cynical, power-hungry tyrant who believes in nothing -- not even in anti-Zionism. The butcher of Baghdad is capable of virtually anything, including cozying up to Israel one day and attacking it the next.
Alas, America's mostly one-sided public debate over Hussein has generated more heat than light in recent months. He's been called a reckless adventurer, a wily survivor, a cynical tyrant, a ruthless fanatic. He can't be all that. A wily survivor isn't reckless, and a cynic isn't fanatical. In fact, the Iraqi tyrant is an opportunistic thug who will do whatever suits his purposes, if he thinks he can get away with it. Above all, he's a survivor.
The Washington hawks demanding war with Baghdad depict Hussein as something different: a dedicated extremist who's committed to defeating Israel and the West, whatever the cost. There are forces in the region who fit that description, but their address isn't Baghdad. It's Tehran.
America's attention has been riveted for months on Hussein and his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, which may have yielded, according to current Israeli intelligence, some stocks of chemicals, some rudimentary biological weapons and very few usable launchers. All the while, Iran has been working unhindered on building a nuclear bomb. It recently brought two new nuclear facilities online, a heavy water plant and a nuclear fuel plant. Iran's mullahs say they wouldn't mind starting a nuclear war with Israel. They might survive and Israel wouldn't. Anyway, survival isn't their thing. They're holy warriors. Iran is where Israel's nightmares take shape.
It's true that Hussein is a very bad guy. He's gassed his own people and attacked two of his neighbors. The world would be a better place without him. But the same could be said of a host of dictators past and present who have threatened neighbors and massacred their own populations, sometimes over our objections, sometimes with our financial backing.
So why Hussein? The fact is, some folks just want action, and with communism gone, Baghdad may just be a handy new target.
They're not wrong to want him gone. But an American attack isn't necessarily wise. It could splinter Iraq, vastly strengthen Iran and cripple Turkey. Worse, it could bring a catastrophic attack on Israel, leaving thousands dead and inviting an Israeli reply that might spell nuclear winter. Would that make the world a better place?
War hawks point to Munich 1938, when the free world faced a tyrant and blinked. But Hitler was explicitly bent on conquering the world and eradicating entire populations, and as head of a great industrial power he had the means to do so. Hussein is more like Stalin circa 1946, a corrupt thug terrorizing the cowed populace of a backward nation.
After defeating Hitler, the West looked east and properly decided Stalin was best contained, not crushed. That was the approach the Clinton administration took in 1993 with its "dual containment" policy -- albeit inadequately enforced -- toward Iraq and Iran.
If there's now a case to be made for abandoning patience and risking world cataclysm, we're waiting to hear it. So is the rest of the world, beginning with our European allies and the moderate Arab states. They have at least as much at stake as we do in stabilizing the Middle East and avoiding nuclear Armageddon.
J.J. Goldberg is editor-in-chief of the Forward, a national Jewish newsweekly published in New York City.