Middle East: A Fearful Potentiality

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A Fearful Potentiality Looking at a Possible, But Unlikely Scenario for Mideast War

News Analysis By John K. Cooley

Aug. 17 — Though they rarely discuss it in public, Arab and Israeli statesmen are aware of a scenario that could turn the intensifying conflict between Israel and the Palestinians into a broader Arab-Israeli war.

It's a scenario that has lurked since Israel's foundation in 1948, and it was a concern for the late King Hussein of Jordan, before he signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. It remains so for many Palestinians, other Arabs and dovish Israelis today. It is the idea of forced deportation — early Zionist theorists and Israeli politicians called it "transfer" — of some or all of the Arabs in pre-1967 Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank eastward to Jordan.

This would leave Israel, theoretically, as an entirely Jewish state. Jordan would be swamped with up to a million new Palestinian refugees, an obvious threat to the existing parliamentary monarchy of King Abdullah with the potential to turn Jordan into a Palestinian state.

In the past, some of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's senior advisers — like the extreme rightist Herut Ihud party's tourism minister, Rehovam Zee'vi — publicly advocated "transfer" as a solution to Palestinian question.

So did fiery Jewish extremists like the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of the outlawed Kach party. However, as prime minister, Sharon has carefully avoided mentioning it. Taking his lead, senior politicians of his ruling Likud party coalition, as well as leading military figures, have rarely done so either.

ExpectingTrouble From Baghdad

Several years before his death, King Hussein confided to this reporter in a private conversation in 1991 that if Jordan were to be faced by a new Palestinian refugee tide — like those in 1948 and 1967, and forced this time by Israel's army — the Jordanian armed forces would have no choice but to resist by waging war on Israel.

This in turn, as in earlier Arab-Israel wars since 1948, could draw an eager Iraqi regime to send its troops and tanks into Jordan. Israel has always warned that it interprets the entry of Iraqi troops into Jordan as an act of war, and acted accordingly.

During the 1967 war, at least one Iraqi brigade tried to engage Israeli tank forces then knifing through Jordan's West Bank near Nablus. But the Iraqis lacked any air cover. Israeli air power wiped them out.

The resulting Arab defeat saw the loss of East Jerusalem and the West Bank to Israel. Iraq also fought in Palestine in 1948 and on Syria's Golan Heights in 1973.

In the 1991 Gulf war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attempted to drive a wedge between Israel and the U.S.-led Arab coalition forces pushing Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait, by firing dozens of Scud missiles at Israeli cities, causing destruction and casualties. At Washington's request, Israel did not respond.

Recently, Saddam has claimed with great fanfare that he is raising, training and equipping several Iraqi divisions, to be sent to "liberate Jerusalem," if only his neighbors Jordan and Syria will permit their entry. Jordan could not do so without breaking its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Syria has no peace treaty with the Jewish state; only a U.N.-supervised "disengagement" accord from 1975.

Plans for Ethnic Cleansing

King Abdullah and Jordan's present leadership may consider the "transfer" war trigger as unlikely, despite the daily conflict worsening west of the Jordan river.

However, they do fear a new refugee tide. Last May, the Interior Ministry in Amman banned entry of certain categories of Palestinians, even those arriving from Israel or the occupied territories who held Jordan residence permits. About half of Jordan's over 4 million people are now Palestinians, including those still in refugee camps.

Theodore Herzl, considered Zionism's founder, wrote in his Diaries in 1895 that jobs should be found for "penniless" Palestinians in "transit countries" but denied jobs in the future Jewish state. "Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly," he added.

Joseph Weitz, an early director of the Jewish National Fund, wrote in December 1940 about "transferring the Arabs from here to neighboring countries ...The transfer must be directed to Iraq, Syria and even to Transjordan ... There is no other way out."

Sharon’s Unspoken Opinion?

According to published Israeli records, in 1964, Ariel Sharon, then an army colonel, asked experts for a memo on "the number of buses and military vehicles" capable of transporting "about 300,000 Arabs" across the river to Jordan. No action followed his request, since the incumbent government vetoed the idea.

Sharon states in his autobiography, Warrior, that in 1970 both he and the late defense minister Moshe Dayan thought it foolish to bow to American wishes to save King Hussein's throne, by massing Israeli tanks to help the King's army defeat the Syrian-backed Palestinian forces then destabilizing Jordan.

"If it had now become possible to resolve the most crucial of these Palestinian problems, through the formal creation of a Palestinian state in Jordan, that is the direction I believed we should move in," he wrote.

This idea has given rise to a favorite slogan of the Israeli extreme Right, "Jordan is Palestine." This arouses almost as much concern in Washington and other Western capitals as it does in Amman.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 17, 2001

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