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Warning Signals

The unhappy prospect of war is seeping back into the headlines and Israel's national conscious-ness

May 15, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Israel celebrated a strange Independence Day last week as it entered its 50th year and Binyamin Netanyahu's government looked forward to the first anniversary of its electoral victory. After a late and unusually long winter, the weather was unseasonably hot. The roads, as usual, were crowded with cars, many displaying Israeli flags. The scent of grilled meat filled the air, and the air force's flyover was as impressive as ever. Yet, for the first time in a long while, on the horizon loomed a dark (though wholly metaphorical) cloud that seemed to be inching its way steadily toward the celebrants. It was a chemical cloud whose press was driven by the winds of war.

The unhappy prospect of war -- which so many Israelis had hoped was behind them after the Oslo accords, the peace treaty with Jordan, and the opening of much of the Arab world to trade and diplomatic relations with Israel -- began to seep back into the headlines, and national consciousness, in the two weeks leading up to the holiday.

First came the report that Syria had obtained, from a Russian scientist, the formula for producing the deadly VX nerve gas and that it is in the early stages of mounting it on the warheads of its surface-to-surface missiles. (VX, which penetrates both through the respiratory system and the skin, is deemed far more dangerous than the serin nerve gas that Syria is known to have had for quite a while.) Questioned about this report, after the Syrian government had denied its veracity, Syrian President Hafez el-Assad made reference to Israel's presumed possession of nuclear weapons and dismissed the subject with something of a "people who live in glass houses" remark. It made Israelis feel no easier.

Then came the references to the IDF's lack of preparedness, in the state comptroller's annual report, which was published last week. In the report's section on the IDF, State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat noted, among other things, a litany of shortcomings in the manpower, equipment, and maintenance of weaponry in the IDF's emergency stores. In some cases, her staff found either a shortage of ammunition or outdated items in these stores.

The report also found that close to 2 million Israelis are in possession of protection kits (containing gas masks and an antidote to nerve gas) that are either unsuited to them or whose components have passed their date of effectiveness. In July 1996, the government decided to discontinue the program to "refresh" these protection kits, only to reverse its decision in October and extend the program for a year. What will happen after that has not yet been discussed by the government.

Scattered in between was a meeting between Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, in which Weizman says he "broke the ice." But Arafat still refused to meet directly with Netanyahu (until the prime minister changes his policy on Har Homa). Crown Prince Hassan canceled a meeting due to a crisis in Israeli-Jordanian relations over the water clauses of the peace treaty (although King Hussein subsequently held a secret meeting with Netanyahu on this issue). Egypt seemed to be the only neighbor with which Israel was not having immediate and direct difficulties.

American peace mediator Dennis Ross arrived for talks with Netanyahu and Arafat that, so far, have not produced any reports of a coveted "breakthrough." All of which spelled no improvement in Israel's broad political situation but not the outright rattling of sabers.


"Is it possible there will be a war that's not initiated by us? Definitely..." -- Amnon Shahak,

chief of staff


But then the most bald and direct references to the possibility of war came in a series of Independence Day interviews given by Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak. In them, the self-possessed Shahak, whose extraordinary presence has made him among the most popular public figures in Israel today, was duly cautious in his wording but did nothing to downplay the fears aroused by the past weeks' headlines.

"Clearly, we're not going to initiate a war," he stated in an interview published in Ma'ariv. "But is it possible there will be a war that's not initiated by us? Definitely...Israeli society is repressing some of the dangers and doesn't want to see them.... I don't think that a war is on the doorstep, and we don't have to sit with our finger on the trigger. But it's necessary to understand that it can happen.... Society must understand that [the possibility of war] is not behind us."

Asked by the interviewer in Yediot Aharonot whether he could assure the nation that the IDF is capable of coping with a war on more than one front, Shahak replied: "I can promise that the IDF will win the war. But even when a country wins, [war] has a very heavy price. Over the past years, the ability of all the armies in the region has greatly improved. Munitions have become more accurate and deadly than in the past. Thus, future wars in the Middle East will take a much higher toll of anyone taking part in them."

Talk like that hasn't been heard in Israel in quite a while, and it's difficult to overestimate the impact of such a message. Suddenly, it seems, the prospect of war has become so palpable that Israelis are even being treated to scenarios of how it will play out.

The "small war" scenario speaks of a clash with the Palestinians and/or the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, replete with enemy fire on Israeli settlements in the territories and rocket fire on civilian centers in the Galilee (as far south as Haifa).

The "big war" scenario speaks of ballistic-missile attacks on Israel's civilian concentrations and military installations (particularly air force bases). Intercepting such missiles could be attempted either toward the end of their journey (as was done against the Scuds in the Gulf War) or at the start, namely, by bombing the enemy's launching facilities (assuming they can be located). Yet, if the enemy's missiles are armed with nonconventional warheads, their interception over Israel still holds dangers for the civilian population. And if bombers are sent out to destroy the missiles at their source, by the time they return, their airfield could be destroyed, making it impossible for them to land, refuel, rearm and go out on further sorties.

Frightening? Absolutely, and undoubtedly meant to be. Over the holiday, in fact, there was much speculation about the subtext of these messages, especially the ones being conveyed by the chief of staff.

Perhaps the most cogent reading on this subject was offered by Ze'ev Schiff, the defense editor of Ha'aretz and Israel's leading commentator on security affairs.

"The chief of staff essentially came out against those who claim that although the peace talks are in crisis, there's no threat of war [as Prime Minister Netanyahu has claimed]," Schiff wrote, of similar comments made by Shahak at a closed meeting of senior officers. "Be aware [Shahak was effectively saying to the government] that there's a price to the political stalemate. You, not the army, are responsible for the political negotiations. But considering this situation, the IDF cannot fail to take into account the possibility of war."

Neither, after the past weeks' headlines and holiday interviews, can anyone else.


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