Israelis Stay on High Alert For Possible Iraqi Attacks

By Chemi Shalev

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The Israeli military is anxiously awaiting Saddam Hussein’s last stand in Baghdad, fearing that the Iraqi president may decide to attack Israel in an ultimate act of do-or-die desperation.

But while the military is wary of the war’s last days, Prime Minister Sharon appears more preoccupied with the days that will follow. Sharon is growing increasingly jittery over what he sees as possible erosion in American-Israeli understandings concerning the “road map” to Middle East peace. The recent spate of public declarations from Washington and London over American and British commitment to the road map, coupled with contradictory signals from Washington over whether or not the current drafts of the plan are negotiable, are causing intense anxiety among policymakers here.

Government officials remain reluctant to confront the White House directly on the issue, fearful of alienating the president in the midst of a war. Other delaying tactics are emerging, however. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz reportedly began preparing an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan of his own, which may be submitted as an alternative to the road map.

Moreover, it appears that Israel may have found an unlikely ally in its effort to postpone publication of the road map, in the person of the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen. Senior officials have told the Forward that Abu Mazen himself has asked the administration to defer presentation of the road map until he has had time to consolidate his position, present his Cabinet and prepare a formal Palestinian response to the plan.

It is the war in Iraq, though, that remains foremost in most Israelis’ minds. Israeli intelligence continues to warn of a possible Iraqi missile attack on Israel, despite the coalition’s near-complete control of potential launching areas in western Iraq. Intelligence officials have consistently rated the danger of an attack as “minuscule” in any event, leading to widespread public criticism this week of the government’s costly and possibly overzealous preparations for a potential attack.

Still, analysts say, just as Saddam may yet decide to employ weapons of mass destruction for a doomsday attack against American and British forces surrounding Baghdad, the possibility can not be ruled out that he still has the will and the capability to lob several missiles with non-conventional warheads at Israeli population centers.

Civil defense authorities are maintaining a heightened level of alert, and are calling on the population to keep their personal gas masks with them at all times. The public, however, is growing more complacent with each passing day of Iraqi combat. The only ones still following civil defense instructions are schoolchildren, who are required to come to class daily with gas masks in tow. Israeli adults, on the other hand, increasingly view the official civil defense exhortations as little more than crying wolf, and are quickly returning to daily business as usual.

The authorities’ most controversial step to date was the order to the public on the eve of the war to open gas masks boxes and attached filters to become familiar with the apparatus in advance. Once the filters are unsealed, the clock starts ticking on their period of effectiveness, meaning they will need to be replaced within a few months, at an estimated national cost of $200-300 million. Coming on the heels of severe and unpopular budget cuts approved this week by the Israeli Cabinet, the decision to open the masks has been savaged in the media and the public as “superfluous” and “wasteful.”

The main charge against the government, particularly the army’s Civil Defense Command, is the discrepancy between intelligence estimates of an attack’s “minuscule” likelihood and the vast efforts and funds devoted to Civil Defense preparations for one, including 24-hour air patrols by Israeli air force F-15s. Sharon has said that while the chances of a missile attack are only “1%,” Israel has made “100%” preparations. The equation has come under widespread criticism.

One way or another, Israelis have become convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the war in Iraq is none of their business. The combat in Iraq has thus evolved into a fairly detached media spectacle, with Israeli pundits serving as armchair quarterbacks to the American generals in the field, pointing up discrepancies between American miscalculations and Israeli experience from past conflicts in Lebanon and the territories. Israelis were particularly taken aback at the criticism leveled by American officials against televised pictures of American prisoners-of-war, since Israel views such pictures as a form of life insurance for the POWs, guaranteeing that they will be kept alive for future bargaining purposes.

In the meantime, Sharon and his aides have grown increasingly agitated about the day after the war, especially in light of growing and discomfiting signals that the administration may decide to push ahead with the Middle East road map and to ignore Israel’s long list of grievances and amendments. The director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s main liaison to the White House, has consistently maintained that the current draft of the road map is not final, and that Israel will have time to express its reservations before the plan is made public. But Defense and Foreign Ministry officials are increasingly nervous that Weisglass may be misreading the American position, and that Israel will be able to introduce only cosmetic changes to the plan.

The diplomatic picture is expected to become clearer after next week’s scheduled Washington meetings between newly installed Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and top administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell. Shalom has been tapped to replace Sharon as the keynote speaker at the annual policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee in Washington, and administration officials are reportedly eager to sound him out on the Sharon government’s views of the road map.

Shalom and other Foreign Ministry officials describe the administration’s attitude toward the road map and postwar diplomacy as an “evolving process,” which will change in accordance with postwar diplomatic realities. Foreign Ministry analysts are convinced that the close accord that existed between Jerusalem and Washington before the war on the fate of the road map will be seriously eroded in light of the administration’s need to mend fences with Europe, to improve its position in the Arab world and to stem the diplomatic fallout from the war. These analysts are warning of a possible postwar confrontation between the two governments, and are cautioning against a repeat of the mutually injurious 1992 battle between the government of then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and the first President Bush.

Apparently in anticipation of such potential American-Israeli friction, it was revealed this week that the defense minister and other top security officials were preparing an alternative peace plan that Israel may submit to counterbalance the current version of the road map. In the new plan, which is currently being drafted, the steps taken by both sides are “sequential,” not concurrent, and Israel is not required to take any steps before Palestinian violence is halted completely. The new plan also envisions the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state, but only after the Palestinians irrevocably renounce their “right of return” and declare unequivocally that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ended.

The new Israeli plan is currently only a contingency, while Israelis ponder the unknown and await the end of the war. At this point it will come as a nasty surprise to most Israelis if, at the last minute, their earlier fears come true and Saddam does indeed attack Israel. If the attack causes Israeli casualties, the government is expected to retaliate. That would negate all current scenarios and wreak havoc throughout the Middle East.

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