The potential disaster: how the crisis could push the region's armies into a conflict beyond their control
By Edward N. Luttwak
Few still hope that Yasser Arafat could ever be Israel's partner in peace, but many now feel that his predicament could become the catalyst of a much larger conflict. If it began to unfold, it could unleash pent-up forces and take on a disastrous momentum of its own. When the possibility arose that Arafat might be killed in his headquarters, there was panic among Arab governments. What they dreaded also greatly alarmed their European counterparts, as well as the U.S. and even the Israelis themselves: uncontrollable mass demonstrations in Arab capitals that might compel reluctant rulers to try to attack Israel in turn.
How would it begin? In one grim scenario, it would start with Egypt's Mubarak, whose controlled media have long been replete with fervent anti-Israeli propaganda in a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from corruption and mismanagement at home. Endless television replays of the most brutal scenes of the Israeli occupation have hammered home the message that Egypt's most urgent concern is the plight of the Palestinians.
The least dangerous Egyptian move would be disastrous in its consequences. The Egyptian army could send its forces into the Sinai to threaten the Israeli frontier, compelling the Israelis to mobilize their own army. Strategically it would be catastrophic, because if the Egyptians acted, Syria's young and insecure President Assad would most likely feel compelled to compete with them by sending his own armored forces to threaten the Golan frontier. Then, even Jordan’s King Abdullah, who greatly values his peace treaty with Israel, might come under pressure from his Palestinian subjects to send in his army.
None of this need be done with any intention of actually fighting. Nonetheless, other Arab governments could be propelled by a mounting spiral of popular enthusiasm to send in their own forces. That would cue Saddam Hussein to send armored forces to threaten Israel by marching through Jordan or Syria. The King of Jordan would dread such contaminating assistance in his territory, and Assad of Syria too would fear it, but if the rhetorical escalation of the leaders and popular agitation heat up the climate, it might become impossible to deny passage to Iraqi forces in part because they might bring with them the chemical or even biological weapons that evoke the special enthusiasm of Hamas and other fundamentalists. Finally, there is the Hizballah militia in southern Lebanon, already deployed close to Israel's northern frontier with hundreds of bombardment rockets ready to strike as far away as the port city of Haifa.
Each government has powerful reasons to refrain from anything more than diplomatic protests even if Arafat is killed. Egypt would lose the U.S. aid that pays for the very weapons it would deploy ($2 billion a year) and for much of its daily bread. Jordan is likewise dependent, Syria's equipment is too outdated to risk war, and even Saddam Hussein can hardly threaten Israel with ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction whose existence he strenuously denies.
Madness is rare only among individuals. It is quite common in entire nations.
From Time magazine.