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Sunday, April 11, 2004

"The stakes are very high for Israel"

Unrest in IRAQ may boost Sharon visit, but a failure in IRAQ could lead to "a range of dire outcomes for Israel"
JTA: WASHINGTON, April 11 — The conflagration in Iraq is likely to draw Israel and the United States closer for now, but a long-term war could riddle the alliance with political land mines.

The uncertainty flourishing in Iraq is reinforcing American reliance on its closest regional ally, but a failure in Iraq could lead to a range of dire outcomes for Israel, including a new U.S. isolationism that would embolden radicals in the region.

“The stakes are very high for Israel,” said Steven Spiegel, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum. “Should Iraq descend into chaos, instability, an anti-Israel government — that would be a serious blow for Israel.”

In the short term, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a clear advantage in his meeting, which was set for Wednesday, with President Bush. Bush is under fire from Democrats and some Republicans for a perceived failure to directly address the mounting casualties in Iraq, and needs whatever Middle East success he can achieve.

“It puts all the more importance on a successful meeting between Sharon and the president,” said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs who travels frequently to the region as president of the Middle East Institute, a think tank. “The last thing the president needs is any more problems in the region.”

Sharon is to present Bush with his final plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The subject of intense U.S.-Israeli negotiation for weeks, the plan still is under wraps, but Sharon appears ready to extract major concessions.

Sharon said last week that he will evacuate only four West Bank settlements in the initial stages of the withdrawal. At the same time, Israeli officials are suggesting that Bush is ready to state in a letter that Israel will not have to return to its border prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, known as the Green Line.