ISRAEL’S Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called on the international community
to target Iran as soon as the imminent conflict with Iraq is complete.
In an interview with The Times , Mr Sharon insisted that Tehran — one
of the “axis of evil” powers identified by President Bush — should be put under
pressure “the day after” action against Baghdad ends because of its role as a
“centre of world terror”. He also issued his clearest warning yet that Israel
would strike back if attacked by Iraqi chemical or biological weapons, no matter
how much Washington sought to keep its controversial Middle Eastern ally out of
any war in Iraq.
He made clear that western Iraq would be one of the first areas targeted by
the US in any invasion, saying that lessons had been learnt from strategic mistakes
of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq successfully fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel.
Mr Sharon, 74, was speaking as he conducted high-level negotiations to keep
his Government afloat after the desertion of his centrist coalition partners.
Last night he survived three no-confidence votes, giving him more time to forge
a coalition with small right-wing parties. He rejected calls for early elections.
The Knesset also approved the appointment of Shaul Mofaz, the hawkish former
Israeli Army chief, as Defence Minister.
But even as the Knesset voted, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up
inside a shopping centre in central Israel, killing at least one other person
and injuring 20.
In other significant changes of tone and policy, Mr Sharon told The Times
Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, could have an ongoing role as a “symbol”,
but could not have a role overseeing financial or security functions. This was
a departure from previous statements that Mr Arafat was entirely “irrelevant”.
Mr Sharon himself would continue to lead the country, elections willing, for
up to five years. There had been widespread speculation that he would retire within
The Israeli Government is considering an unprecedented crackdown on the Islamic
movement within its own borders, fearing that a “small minority” of Israeli Arabs
are turning against the country.
He asserted that while Washington was inevitably focusing on Saddam Hussein
— whom he called “insane” — the White House shared his concern that Iran was also
seeking weapons of mass destruction, and developing missiles capable of striking
Israel and even Europe.
“I talked about these things with Vladimir Putin a few days ago and I have
been to Washington and one of the things I talked about was what will be (sic)
later, if Iraq is going to be disarmed.
“One of the things I mentioned is that the free world should take all the necessary
steps to prevent irresponsible countries from having weapons of mass destruction:
Iran, Iraq of course, and Libya is working on a nuclear weapon.”
He accused Tehran of sponsoring the Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah, which
he claimed had up to 10,000 short-range missiles stationed in Lebanon ready to
strike Israeli towns, of smuggling weapons to the Palestinian Authority, and of
trying to turn Israel’s one million Arab citizens against the Jewish state. “Iran
is a centre of world terror and Iran makes every effort to possess weapons of
mass destruction on the one hand and ballistic missiles,” he said. “That is a
danger to the Middle East, to Israel and a danger to Europe.
“They are working now on a ballistic missile of 1,300km. They have almost reached
this range already. They were talking in the past about 2,500km and even 5,000km.”
Mr Sharon made it abundantly clear that he would not hold back from retaliating,
as Israel did at Washington’s behest in 1991, if his nation came under serious
attack. “First, we understand the sensitivity. We are living here, we were born
here. Israel will make every effort not to interfere,” he said.
But he warned: “If Israel, and I made it very clear, is attacked by weapons
of mass destruction . . . Israel will react. Is it clear? I believe that they
understand that Israel will not be able not to defend itself.”
Mr Sharon reiterated that he was willing to work toward the eventual creation
of a Palestinian state, but demanded that progress toward it be measured by concrete
improvements in security on the ground.
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.