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Jewish Journal

Once More, With Feeling

by Rob Eshman

September 19, 2002 | 8:00 pm

While we Americans debate the cost and benefit of a war with Iraq, we American Jews must not kid ourselves: the second front in America's war against Iraq will be Tel Aviv, not Tarzana.

It is true that Americans will probably die in any confrontation, and that terrorists inspired or funded directly by Saddam Hussein will try to strike targets in the homeland. Sept. 11 proved, if nothing else, it can happen here.

Listening to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testify before Congress this week, I couldn't help but feel confident that Gulf War II will be that much easier for our military. The harder Hussein fights back, the more likely U.S. forces will pummel him.

But what if Hussein, the Eveready dictator who has mastered the art of survival, doesn't fight us back? What if he points every last gun and missile toward Israel, turning a war about him into a war about them.

Generals and politicians on both sides of the Euphrates are already geared up for such a conflict. In a Gulf newspaper, Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammed Mahdi Saleh threatened Israel with a "profound and an unforgettable strike" if it takes part in a U.S. attack on Baghdad. Just what constitutes taking part is unclear. What is clear is that Iraq is maneuvering even now to turn Bush's ultimatum into Israel's problem. According to a report in Ha'aretz, Iraq has stepped up its attempts to move weapons and financial aid to Palestinian Authority areas in an effort to resume terror attacks against Israel. In Gaza last week, sheiks handed out financial grants from Hussein to 32 families of Palestinian dead.

Israelis get it. "Israel is the most likely target," former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a House Government Reform Committee last week. "It must be protected." The Israeli government is vaccinating emergency workers against smallpox and distributing new gas mask kits. Israeli generals are saying publicly that the country's missile batteries are much better prepared to prevent Iraqi missiles from landing on Israeli soil. And, in a departure from then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's policy during the first Gulf War, the Sharon government has made it very plain that it will likely not honor a U.S. request to refrain from retaliating against Iraq. Rumsfeld sent out the signal again during his testimony, cautioning Israel against military retaliation by saying that any Iraqi strike would be of limited duration. But if Hussein is as dangerous and as well supplied with weapons of mass destruction as the administration is saying, even a brief attack could be horrendously costly.

None of this is to say that America, and whatever allies it can muster, shouldn't make war on Iraq. The arguments for not fighting are many and good: Iraq's human rights record is no worse than -- and in some cases better than -- countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which are now our allies. Its missile threat may be less than that of Iran and North Korea. Our focus now should be against crazy Islamic terrorists, not crazy Islamic states. Destroying Hussein will not ensure a democratic or peaceful Iraq. The invasion itself, critics say, is an election-timed ruse to take our minds off the economy and the failure to capture Osama bin Laden. Even assuming all these arguments are absolutely correct, they still don't amount to an adequate defense of Hussein. The world will be a safer place without him, period.

In the best-case scenario, a U.S. military strike forces Hussein out of power -- or kills him -- and begins a shake-up in the regimes of the Middle East. In the second-best case, a strike doesn't obliterate Hussein's regime, but cripples it, again. That's what happened in 1981, when Israel launched a lightning raid from the air to take out the Tammuz (Osirak) Iraqi nuclear reactor. Critics here and abroad howled foul -- remember, this happened back in the day when the United States was treating Hussein like a friend in his fight against Iran. God only knows what Hussein would have wrought since then if Israel hadn't acted to set back Iraq's nuclear program.

Ten years later, the Gulf War crippled Hussein again.

Now we have a chance to attack once more, but with feeling. President George W. Bush must realize he has set the bar very high for himself. Given Bush's rhetoric and reasoning, any military action that stops short of destroying Hussein's regime will be a failure. Just buying the world another 10 years of respite from the threat of Hussein is not an option.

Hussein knows this, too. He hears the ticking clock echo off the walls of his Baghdad bunker, and, being no dummy, realizes that striking Israel will get him more mileage from his fellow Arabs than returning America's fire. That's why while America rattles its sabers, Israel battens its hatches.

What this means for us, as Americans and as Jews, is murky. We may find ourselves having to choose between criticizing or defending the actions of an Israel disobedient to our president. We may find ourselves having to rush to help, in any way we can, an Israel under attack. We may need to ask America to do more to defend Israel, even as we tell the world, correctly and in contradiction to Hussein's propaganda, that America's support for Israel did not cause the war.

In other words, with Gulf War II on the horizon, American Jews can look forward to some kind of battle of their own.

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