As Shiite and Sunni resistance to the American presence in Iraq intensifies, Israel's defense establishment is worried that a U.S. withdrawal under fire could have devastating consequences for the battles against weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism.
And Israel could be one of the big losers: Israeli officials believe a loss of American deterrence would encourage Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program, and its support for terrorism could lead to a hardening of Syrian and Palestinian attitudes against accommodation with Israel and could spark more Palestinian and other terrorism directed against Israeli targets.
Without American deterrence and a pro-Western Iraq, the officials say, Israel might have to rethink its attitude on key issues like the concessions it can afford to make to the Palestinians, its readiness for a land war on its eastern front and the size of its defense budget.
But there is an opposing, minority view in Israeli academic and intelligence circles: The quicker the Americans leave, this view holds, the quicker the Iraqis will have to get their act together. And once they do, they will not necessarily pose a threat to Israel or the West.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz summoned a meeting in early April of Israeli intelligence services and other branches to discuss the implications for Israel of the unrest in Iraq. Some of the analyses were bleak.
When the United States launched a war on Saddam Hussein's regime in March 2003, Israeli military planners hoped for several significant gains.
Saddam's defeat and the destruction of the Iraqi war machine would remove the threat of hundreds of Iraqi and Syrian tanks rumbling across the desert to threaten Israel's eastern border, officials believed. They also hoped for a domino effect that would lead Syria and the Palestinians to seek accommodation with Israel, countries like Iran and Libya to rethink their nuclear weapons programs and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to exercise restraint.
In the first year after the war, some of that seemed to be happening. Now some Israeli intelligence analysts fear a reversal of these processes, with all the attendant dangers for Israel.
In the meeting with Mofaz, there was a general consensus that if American deterrence in the region is weakened, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad all will be encouraged to mount or incite even more terrorism against Israel.
Some officers expressed fear of possible Iranian intervention in southern Iraq on the side of the Shiites, if the situation degenerates into war between the Sunni and Shiite populations after a hasty American withdrawal. That could lead to a radical Shiite regime in Iraq, similar to the one in Iran.
If such a radical Iraq were to emerge, some officers suggested, Israel might have to reconsider the huge cuts in the size of its tank forces that it planned after the destruction of Saddam's army last year. That could impact the key defense budget, which was slashed last year and again this year as part of a general government austerity program.
A loss of American prestige in the region, some officials said, also could impact countries with pro-American regimes like Egypt and Jordan, and might mean that American guarantees to Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would carry less weight.
In general, American attempts to stabilize the Middle East would suffer a huge setback, with potentially harsh consequences for Israel and the West. The two main goals of the U.S.-led war -- curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in rogue countries such as Iran and striking a blow against global terrorists such as Al Qaeda -- could be reversed.
In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Mofaz echoed these concerns, saying, "America's success in Iraq is essential for world peace. If the Americans manage to stabilize the situation in Iraq -- and we in Israel believe they will -- that will have a positive impact on the Middle East as a whole, on the world oil market and on the prestige of the international community."
But, he cautioned, "if the Americans are forced to withdraw in the wake of terrorist pressure, a new and dangerous model of Arab regime will be created. The axis of evil will lift its head, and it could threaten world peace."
Some Middle East experts in Israeli academia and the military take a more sanguine view, however. They argue that if the Americans withdraw soon after the handover of power to the Iraqi Provisional Council, scheduled for June 30, Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites would reach a modus vivendi on shared rule to keep the country from plunging into chaos.
They ask: Would a new Iraqi regime -- even if radical Shiites are a dominant part of it -- adopt a provocative, anti-Western stance after what happened to Saddam? If they did, who would rearm them? And without sizable quantities of sophisticated weaponry, how could they threaten Israel or the Western world?
Surely, these experts reason, any new Iraqi regime would prefer to tap America's willingness to reconstruct Iraq and allow oil revenues to create a basis for new prosperity. They argue that an orderly American withdrawal, announced well in advance, would do more for American prestige in the area than an ill-fated attempt to crush the dissident Iraqi militias.
But this is a minority view in Israel, and similar predictions of rational Arab moderation -- such as the thinking that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority -- have proven wrong in the past. Most members of the government, the defense establishment and the intelligence community believe America should maintain its military presence in Iraq in an effort to create a Western-leaning regime there and through it, a new and more stable Middle East.
When President Bush says, "America will stay the course," they take heart.