Israel Key to Iraq War Outlook

Less restraint than during Gulf War is likely. But Israel's firing back could undercut Arab support for US action.

As Irit Gavish waited in a teeming kindergarten courtyard with her two children to receive new gas masks, she was unsure about whether Iraq would attack Israel with biological or chemical weapons - and whether the masks would do any good.

What she was sure of was that if Israel were attacked, it would not show the same restraint that it did during the Gulf War in 1991, when 39 Scud missiles fell on Israel - mostly in her area.

"I think Israel should fire back," says Mrs. Gavish, standing among crowds of jittery Israelis who have been rushing to trade in obsolete masks. "Last time it was different. Israel is [now] ready."

That sentiment seems to echo up to the highest levels of Israel's government. Top political and defense officials say that Israel will not stay on the sidelines while America fights the battle.

For the United States, the prospect of Israel hitting back at Iraq this time - perhaps even with a limited nuclear strike - raises concerns that whatever Arab support Washington has mustered against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would fast evaporate. Any nuclear action at all would certainly also have worldwide repercussions.

If the crisis even reaches the point of a response to an Iraqi attack on Israel - and both Iraqi and Israeli officials say the likelihood is very small - the Clinton administration apparently would prefer to see Israel let its American super-ally do the retaliating.

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was here earlier in the week, she told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he should avoid responding to any Iraqi attack - and was reportedly disappointed when she received no promise from him.

Indeed, of the many factors that have changed in the Middle East equation since the beginning of the decade, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, is Israel's position on how to respond. Mr. Netanyahu and his onetime mentor Moshe Arens, who was defense minister during the Gulf War, are now known to have been critical of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's acquiescence to America's request that Israel not play into Saddam's hands and break up the coalition against him. Then, it included several Arab neighbors.

Now, Netanyahu has apparently found much company in the belief that it hurts Israel's deterrent strength - that is, its known military and nuclear superiority over its foes in the region - if Israel appears consistently reluctant to use any of its capabilities. Though most Israelis think that they must be self-reliant in their defense, some leaders feel that even more strongly than others.

"Shamir was a hawk, but he had a passive personality, and Netanyahu is more the active type," says Shmuel Sandler, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

A lesson for Syria?

Many analysts suggest that Israel's opposition to showing restraint isn't just about the current crisis with Iraq, but about messages an abstention from force might send to other neighbors.

"If you abstain from it once, it's an option. If you do it twice, it's a habit," says Dan Schueftan, a veteran consultant to Israel's Defense and Foreign Ministries. "It will be a lesson to Syria that, from an Israeli point of view, will be extremely dangerous. If [the Arabs] think they can get away with [attacking], Israel cannot survive in this region."

What level of response?

Observers estimate that Israel's response would depend on how it is attacked. If it is again hit with a few conventional missiles, it would probably not respond. But if Saddam sends chemical or biological weapons, then Israel will seriously consider using nuclear weapons - which it has never officially admitted to having - against Iraq.

Last weekend, the New York newspaper Newsday quoted an anonymous "senior Clinton adviser" as saying US policy now permits targeting Iraq with tactical atomic warheads if Saddam launches a major biological attack on Israel or other neighboring countries.

But the official also called the actual use of such weapons "another matter."

There is widespread doubt among US military and political analysts that any such action would be seriously considered.

Mr. Shueftan suggests that in raising the specter of any nuclear counterstrike, the US might have just wanted to remind Iraqis that Israel has nuclear capabilities.

"Sometimes the US government is more willing to use the Israeli nuclear threat than is Israel," he says.

"It's 'Do what we tell you, or else we unleash the Israelis.' "

New landscape

Many Israelis argue that, in the words of Likud Party parliament member Silvan Shalom, their "hands are no longer tied" because there is no formal coalition against Saddam. But on the other hand, some argue that is exactly what Ms. Albright has been trying to build all week in her whirlwind mission to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt. If she is piecing together what former Israeli leader Shimon Peres calls "a silent coalition," then it is not impossible that an Israeli response will weigh heavily on decisionmaking in Arab capitals and feed an impression that the US and Israel are waging war on Iraq.

Other relationships have changed, too. Since 1991, many Arab nations have begun testing preliminary ties with Israel in the wake of peace treaties with Jordan and the Palestinians.

Though the election of Netanyahu in May 1996 and the stalemate in the peace process have frozen most of those moves toward normalization, analysts estimate that Arab displeasure with Israel is not very likely to translate into other states joining Iraq in a war on the Jewish state.

Impact of peace process

But the decline in the peace process, and Washington's visible frustration with Netanyahu over his refusal to agree upon substantial West Bank troop withdrawals, has taken away incentive for Netanyahu to cooperate. From Albright's statements about disappointment with the parties earlier this week to President Clinton's recent coolness toward Netanyahu, "this doesn't make Bibi open to making a priority major concessions to the US," says Schueftan.

The unwillingness to follow the US line may represent a further strain in US-Israel relations under Netanyahu, but only in the context of the two countries maintaining such deep cooperative ties that they are not worried about doing any real damage to their long-term relationship.

"Netanyahu's raising his stakes higher and higher, and so are the Americans. He's saying, 'I will support you strategically vis--vis Iraq, without rolling over and playing dead.' "

To be sure, Israel's role in the crisis may amount to little more than civilian alarm. Nizar Hamdoon, ambassador to the United Nations, said in a recent CNN interview that Iraq has no intention of attacking Israel.

And the only scenario that most analysts think might push Saddam to use what he has left of his weapons arsenal against Israel is if the US strikes at him so hard that he begins to make the desperate moves of a man with few options left.

For that reason, some here hope that if the US does decide to use force, it be used in moderation.

"You can do damage, make them hurt, but you can't just totally destroy them," Dr. Sandler says.

But some Israelis spending hours in line for gas masks aren't taking much solace in the estimation that chances of an attack are low.

"We are very afraid," says Rachel Standar, as she walks away from the distribution center with bags of gas masks.

"I believe Saddam is crazy, and that he will drop bombs on us again sooner or later," she says.

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