Seven years ago, when Saddam Husseinhurled 39 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, Israel reluctantly refrainedfrom retaliating. The Bush administration convinced Prime MinisterYitzhak Shamir that an Israeli blow at Iraq would undermine theanti-Baghdad coalition assembled for Operation Desert Storm.
The Iraqi dictator would be foolish to assume thatIsrael would again sit on its hands if it were attacked.
Israelis were stung by a Jan. 26 statement by thechief United Nations weapons inspector, Richard Butler, who said thatSaddam Hussein possessed enough biological weapons "to blow away TelAviv." Lines began to form at gas mask distribution centers. On oneday alone, 12,000 applied to upgrade their equipment. Commentatorsadvised householders to prepare a sealed room, as they did in 1991,though there seems to have been no rush on masking tape or combatrations.
A Gallup Poll published last weekend found 86percent of Israelis favoring military retaliation. The London Timesreported that the Jewish state would respond to an unconventionalattack by dropping a neutron bomb on Baghdad.
No Israeli spokesman has made so explicit athreat, but Saddam knows that Israel has a nuclear capability. Hecannot ignore the possibility that it would be used if he resorts tochemical or biological weapons. That may indeed have been whatdeterred him last time, when he stuck to conventional warheads forhis strikes on Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Unlike 1991, the United States does not nowcommand the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states forits anti-Saddam crusade. There is no regional coalition for Israel toundermine. Washington would have to marshal other arguments topersuade Shamir's right-wing Likud successor, Binyamin Netanyahu, tohold back. It might not succeed this time.
So far, however, the word in Jerusalem is "watchand wait." The Gulf confrontation quickly replaced Bill Clinton'ssexual adventures at the top of Israeli front pages, but there is nopanic, not yet anyway. Ron Ben-Ishai, a leading military commentator,urged Israelis to "prepare quietly for any possibility, but withoutshowing fear and without issuing declarations which could possiblyplant ideas in the mind of the Butcher of Baghdad."
In that spirit, the government decreed that onlyNetanyahu and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai would make officialstatements on the crisis. With American assistance, Israel isboosting its stock of antidotes. The professional assessment is thatan Iraqi attack is not imminent. With the partial success of theallies' massive 1991 bombardment and the U.N. inspection program,intelligence sources estimate that Saddam is reduced to two or threemissile launchers and a few dozen Scuds. He is also reported to havehidden about 75 nonconventional warheads.
There is no evidence that they have been deployedin western Iraq, ready to target Israel, which still has no effectiveanti-missile shield. But just in case, a special hot line has beenactivated between the Pentagon in Washington and the Defense Ministryin Tel Aviv. No one is underrating Saddam's lethal potential.
His son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who defected toJordan in August 1995, revealed that vast stocks of deadly agentswere still concealed in Iraq. Hussein Kamel knew what he was talkingabout. He was the man who oversaw Iraq's nonconventional-weaponsprogram (he was murdered after rashly returning to Baghdad).
Since 1995, Iraq has acknowledged producing 2,265gallons of the germ-warfare agent anthrax; huge quantities of thefast-acting toxin, ricin, described by U.S. Defense Secretary WilliamCohen as "one of the most deadly poisons on earth" and to which thereis no antidote; and 3.9 tons of the chemical nerve agent VX, of whichone-hundredth of a gram is said to be fatal.
Western analysts are not convinced by Saddam'sclaim to have destroyed these murderous stocks. Even if it had, Iraqstill has the facilities to manufacture more VX in a plant ostensiblybuilt to produce pesticides. Experts say that the technology isidentical. Ricin is extracted from the castor bean, and the Americansbelieve that Iraq has hundreds of acres of castor beans undercultivation.
The question in 1998 is not whether Saddam's Scudscould deliver these lethal injections, but how much damage they arecapable of inflicting. A lot depends on whether his scientists haveworked out how to detonate chemical or biological warheads in midairover populated areas. The answer to that is not known.
"If a warhead detonated on impact as the missilehit the ground, it would not cause extensive damage," Laurie Mylroie,of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, explainedin the December issue of the Middle East Review of InternationalAffairs. "A midair burst is necessary to achieve the dissemination ofan unconventional agent that would kill most human beings nearby.Still, if even one Iraqi missile with a biological warhead were toexplode as intended over a Middle East city, it would mean theannihilation of an unprotected population."
Israel, its leaders insist, reserves the right todecide for itself how to protect its population. Netanyahu told aconference of Orthodox rabbis that the situation was being monitored"thoroughly on a day-to-day basis, with deployment happeningaccordingly."
Let's hope that Saddam Hussein is listening.
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