Iraq war was good for Israel: Olmert
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Iraq war was a boon for Israel's security, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Wednesday, voicing fresh endorsement for a Bush administration sapped by the unpopularity at home of its Middle East policies.
The mid-term election losses of U.S. President George W. Bush's Republican Party were widely considered a repudiation of his decision to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein as part of a vision of democratizing the region and bolstering allies like Israel.
Olmert avoided explicit comment on the Republicans' fortunes during Washington talks with Bush earlier this month. But in a speech to visiting American Jews, Olmert made clear he had few regrets about the changes wrought by the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"I know all of his (Bush's) policies are controversial in America. There are some who support his policies in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, and some who do not," he said.
"I stand with the president because I know that Iraq without Saddam Hussein is so much better for the security and safety of Israel, and all of the neighbors of Israel without any significance to us," added Olmert, who was speaking in English.
"Thank God for the power and the determination and leadership manifested by President Bush."
With U.S.-led forces mired in an Iraqi insurgency, political analysts have speculated that Bush may redirect his attentions toward solving an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is a major grievance in the Arab and Muslim world.
That could prompt Olmert to reconsider his unilateral policies towards a Palestinian leadership that he has argued is incapable or unwilling to make peace with Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who has been struggling to revive rapprochement efforts despite opposition from the Hamas Islamists with which he shares power, has said that Israel should seek peace as a key to wider regional calm.
Under Saddam, Iraq backed Palestinian militants and posed a menacing presence to Israel's east. During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq rained missiles on Israel but Israel held its fire at the behest of Washington, which was wary of alienating Arab allies.
But Olmert's views on today's Iraq have not been shared by all Israeli experts.
Yuval Diskin, chief of the Shin Bet intelligence service, said in a leaked briefing earlier this year that Israel could come to rue Saddam's ouster if it deepens regional instability.
"When you take apart a system in which a dictator has been controlling his people by force, you have chaos," Diskin said in a recording broadcast by Israeli television. "I'm not sure we won't end up missing Saddam."
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