Israelis have a long score to settle with Saddam Hussein: The former Iraqi dictator promised to destroy the Jewish State, fired 39 Scud missiles at Israeli cities during the Persian Gulf War and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
So, not surprisingly, Israelis were jubilant at news of Saddam's capture by U.S. forces in Iraq, a mood reflected by the Tel Aviv stock exchange, which rose more than 3 percent on the day.
However, seasoned Israeli analysts are less euphoric. While acknowledging a best-case scenario in which Saddam's capture spurs the Israeli-Palestinian peace track, puts pressure on Syria to seek a peace agreement and enhances Israel's strategic position in the region, they say that much still has to happen in Iraq for that scenario to materialize.
The key question, they say, is whether Saddam's capture leads to a significant reduction in the number of guerrilla attacks on U.S. and allied forces and leads to a more stable, pro-American Iraqi regime.
If that happens, the benefits for Israel could be enormous. But if the attrition and chaos continue, the positive impact of Saddam's capture could dissipate quickly.
On the face of it, Saddam's final, ignominious exit should put more pressure on the Palestinians to seek an accommodation with Israel. The radical Arab forces pressing the Palestinians to reject all peace offers have been weakened, and Saddam's capture further reduces the radical hinterland Palestinian hardliners look to for support.
Conversely, it strengthens the regional standing of the United States and adds weight to the U.S.-sponsored "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In the Ma'ariv newspaper, analyst Ben Caspit wrote that there is an Israeli establishment assessment that "the removal of Saddam from the catalogue of burning problems will release new energy in America's involvement here." Caspit assumed that the road map will be strengthened, the Palestinian Authority and Israeli prime ministers -- Ahmed Qurei and Ariel Sharon -- will be forced to deal with each other and Sharon's putative unilateral steps will be deferred.
But will the Americans, still embroiled in Iraq, have the resolve to exploit the moment to pressure both Palestinians and Israelis to move forward? Israeli Cabinet ministers think not.
On the contrary, they expect U.S. pressure on Israel to ease. Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, for example, believes the United States now will be "far more confident in carrying out its campaign against the 'Axis of Evil,'" and give Israel more leeway in fighting terror.
Any reduction of U.S. pressure would be a problem, said analyst Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Bitterlemons.org Web site and a former senior Mossad operative. In Alpher's view, the capture of Saddam will only move the Israeli-Palestinian track forward if President Bush follows it up by "knocking some heads together" on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
"But," Alpher said, "this is not the direction we are moving in. On the contrary, we are moving toward low-level crisis management throughout the U.S. election period and throughout the crisis in Iraq -- and the U.S. is still facing a crisis in Iraq."
Writing in Yediot Achronot, analyst Nahum Barnea doubted whether Sharon will exploit the U.S. success to take the initiative on the Palestinian track.
"What can Sharon learn from Bush's achievement?" he asked. "First, that he who dares, wins. He sets the agenda. Sharon has known this truth for 50 years. But knowledge is one thing, action another: The chasm is deep and the feet are heavy. He wants to, but it's not easy for him."
In congratulating Bush, Sharon suggested that Saddam's capture could herald the beginning of the end for dictatorships throughout the Middle East, with major strategic benefits for Israel. In a veiled allusion to neighboring Syria, Sharon said, "The dictatorships, and especially those tainted by terror, learned a historic lesson today: The enlightened international community showed that it can defend freedom and defeat terror when it has to."
The analysts, though, have their doubts. They are skeptical about the chances of a democratic Iraq emerging from the chaos, let alone setting off a domino effect of democratization across the region.
Yediot Achronot's Alex Fishman wrote that "Saddam's capture is not an earthquake, not in Iraq and certainly not in the Middle East. Its impact on our regional conflict is marginal, at most."
Alpher pointed out that the Sunni Muslims who have ruled Iraq for 13 centuries are a minority and, even without Saddam to egg them on, they fear that U.S.-style democracy would lead to their removal from power -- reason enough to continue a rearguard action to resist democracy.
"It takes a stretch of the imagination that Saddam's capture is going to put the democratic domino effect back on track," Alpher said. "That I don't see happening."
Still, Alpher said he sees major short-term strategic gains for the United States and Israel. Saddam's capture dramatically enhances U.S. credibility in the region, and that, he said, "is a boost for American deterrence and, by association, for Israeli deterrence, too."
If, despite the expert assessments, the United States is able, within a year or so, to put into place a genuine, functioning democracy in Iraq, that would send a very important message across the Middle East.
There's even an outside chance that a pro-American Iraq might even seek relations with Israel. And that, in turn, would be certain to impact on Bashar Assad's Syria.
In a recent New York Times interview, Assad spoke of peace with Israel as a strategic choice his father had made, and one he intended to pursue. A democratic Iraq, at peace with Israel, would give him added incentive.
But, the experts say, capturing Saddam is only one necessary step in that direction. There is still a long way to go. Â
Saddam's Turbulent Past With Israel
The capture of Saddam Hussein puts another nail in the coffin of an Arab dictatorship known for its anti-Israel activity and rhetoric.
Here are some of the most significant events in Saddam's regime and his contentious relationship with Israel:
1957 -- Saddam joins the Ba'ath Party.
1969 -- Saddam is appointed vice president by President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. Soon afterward, Iraq hangs 17 alleged spies, including 11 Jews, in what is seen as Saddam's first strong message to Israel.
1979 -- Saddam becomes president of Iraq, carrying out a bloody purge in which dozens of military officers and
party officials are executed.
1980-1988 -- Israel is mainly on the back burner for Saddam as Iraq is embroiled in a bloody war with Iran.
1981 -- Israel bombs Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak. Israeli officials defend the strike in the face of worldwide condemnation, arguing that Saddam's regime is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Years later, some of the same voices that condemned Israel in 1981 say the strike was the correct move.
Late 1980s -- Iraqi and Israeli officials engage in high-level contacts in an attempt to end mutual hostilities.
1991 -- Iraq fires Scud missiles at Israel during the Persian Gulf War. Under American pressure, Israel does not respond militarily. Casualties and damage from the attacks are minimal, but the rain of missiles traumatizes many Israelis and strengthens Saddam's image among Arabs.
1992 -- Five Israeli soldiers are killed in a military accident in Tze'elim. On Tuesday, Israel admitted publicly for the first time that the exercise was training for an assassination attempt on Saddam
2000-2003 -- Saddam provides millions of dollars in cash payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers during the current intifada.
2003 -- Despite fears that he would again strike Israel, Saddam does not fire missiles at the Jewish State during the
U.S.-led war in Iraq. On Dec. 13, Saddam is captured by U.S. forces near his hometown of Tikrit. Â
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