Malise Ruthven

  • Two Minutes over Baghdad by Amos Perlmutter, Michael Handel and Uri Bar-Joseph
    Corgi, 192 pp, £1.75, April 1982, ISBN 0 552 11939 3
  • Inside the Middle East by Dilip Hiro
    Routledge, 471 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9030 7
  • America Held Hostage: The Secret Negotiations by Pierre Salinger
    Deutsch, 349 pp, £10.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 233 97456 3

No one contemplating the events of the past few weeks can doubt that the complex and intractable conflicts of the Middle East pose a far greater threat to world peace than the ugly fight in the South Atlantic ever did. Despite the windy rhetoric about principles, the Falklands conflict has been a comparatively simple one about sovereignty over disputed territory, involving national prestige – and therefore the political survival of two governments (or rather juntas, one has been tempted to add, as the Westminster variety increasingly resembled its Argentine counterpart in shrillness and implacability). The Middle East is a sweltering miasma of political conflicts where sovereignty is only one among a number of issues. Disputed territory in the Shatt el Arab, official cause of the Iran-Iraq war, or on the West Bank of the Jordan, is only an element in much deeper conflicts involving allegiance, ideology and group identity, exacerbated by the existence of oil and strategic assets which keep the super-powers waiting anxiously on the side-lines, hesitating to intervene directly, yet too opportunistic, or unsure of their interests, to blow the final whistle.

The emergence of Israel as a monopolist nuclear power in the region, as documented by Professor Perlmutter and his two collaborators, adds a new, alarming dimension to the picture. Having secured its south-western flank by the peace treaty with Egypt, the embattled Jewish state is currently arranging its solution to the Palestinian problem. After removing the PLO bases in Lebanon, it will soon be free to absorb the West Bank within Begin’s ‘Greater Isráel’ and to defend its gains, including a portion of Southern Lebanon, with nuclear weapons. From now on, so it would seem, the Palestine problem will be ‘internal’ to Israel – a struggle to be waged on the streets and in the prisons, away from the eyes of the international community. The ‘autonomy’ envisaged by the Camp David agreements is unlikely to extend beyond garbage collection.

Ostensibly Two Minutes over Baghdad is a True Life Adventure Story in the ‘Entebbe’ tradition, in which an author trades his skills as a publicist against ‘inside’ information supplied by intelligence sources. The effect, like that of the Entebbe books, will be to enhance the Israeli Defence Forces’ reputation for skilled planning, training and derring-do. The operation, which knocked out Iraq’s Tammuz reactor on 7 June 1981, was brilliantly executed; the authors, all of whom are academics, tell the story in a competent, rather than inspired manner. The book, however, also has a more serious purpose, which is to announce, semi-officially, that Israel is a member of the nuclear club and intends to retain its monopoly so long as its neighbours are ‘irrational’ enough not to recognise its existence as a state within those frontiers it chooses to define for itself. The book is openly partisan, often tendentious, and carefully avoids drawing attention to such inconvenient facts as Israel’s refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty which would, of course, allow international inspection of its own nuclear facilities at Dimona. The authors follow Mr Begin’s line, treated sceptically by some Israeli nuclear experts, that the Tammuz reactor was on the point of being able to produce weapons-grade material, although any such conversion to weapons use would instantly have set the alarm bells ringing in the International Atomic Energy Authority. As a signatory to the NPT, Iraq is obliged to open its reactors to IAEA inspectors.

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