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(photo credit: AP [file])
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon told President George W. Bush ahead of the US-led invasion of Iraq of the dangers Saddam Hussein posed for the region, but also warned him that the Arab world would not be receptive to democracy, former ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Ayalon, who sat in on numerous Bush-Sharon meetings, said the US and Israel held close consultations during the run-up to the war, but that Sharon was very careful not to advocate any particular American action.
Ayalon said he served as "Sharon's watchdog," ensuring that when officials from the Defense or Foreign ministries came to Washington they would give US officials a "true analysis, but never cross the line of recommending policy."
Israel, Ayalon said, did not tell the Americans what they should do, since Sharon was "astute and careful enough" to realize that this could lead to future accusations that Israel led the US into Iraq. But, Ayalon said, Bush did receive Sharon's analysis of the situation.
According to Sharon, Saddam was an acute threat, and he supported his analysis by pointing to the Iraqi dictator's conduct during the Iran-Iraq War; his launching of 39 Scud missiles at Israel, and more than 40 at Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, during the first Gulf War; his material and logistical support for terrorists; and his track record of intimidating his neighbors.
In addition, Ayalon said the Saddam threat factor was driven home by the intelligence information that "we all shared" that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, "especially in the chemical area."
Another element involved in these analyses was the fact that despite Israel's bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant in 1981, Iraq still had the blueprints and technological know-how to create nuclear weapons, "and it was just the matter of finding the right moment to put their program back on track in a fast manner."
Regarding democratization of the region, Ayalon said Sharon told Bush it would take a long time, and "the president understood that this was something that would not be done overnight.
"Based on his intimate knowledge of the Arab world, Sharon was skeptical of the idea that Arab societies were ready to receive democratic culture," Ayalon said.
Former Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin, meanwhile, said Sharon "used his expertise on guerrilla warfare" during his discussions with Bush, and advised that before trying to impose democracy on Iraq it was necessary to bring about stability.
Gissin said Sharon told Bush that whatever he decided, the US would eventually leave the region, but Israel would have to stay and deal with the consequences of US action or inaction.
Gissin described one meeting where Sharon gave Bush a "lecture on how to deal with counterinsurgency," and discussed with him in detail the need to isolate Iraq, prevent the flow of money and weapons and keep the insurgents under constant pressure.
According to Gissin, Sharon was adamant that no Israeli official should speak publicly about what the US should do. However, he said, in the private meetings Sharon warned against "putting the cart before the horse, and said that there can't be democracy without stability."
Gissin said Sharon also warned Bush that democratization would drive a wedge between the US and its moderate Arab allies in the region - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Persian Gulf countries - who were worried about what this democratization would mean for their regimes.