November 29, 2001
A New Iraqi Threat?
George W. Bush's gritty message to Saddam Hussein this week that any nation that develops weapons of mass destruction for terrorist purposes "will be held accountable" flashed a warning light to Israel.
If Iraq is indeed next on Washington's anti-terrorist menu, and if that means not just sanctions but a military offensive, Israel would have to brace itself for retaliatory strikes. Saddam fired Scud missiles on Tel Aviv in the 1991 Gulf War. He would be strongly tempted to do so again, perhaps even using biological and chemical weapons this time.
Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, the deputy chief of staff, predicted on Monday: "If attacked, Iraq is liable to launch missiles and planes against Israel." Other defense sources are suggesting that either of them might deliver nonconventional warheads -- and even that the planes might be flown by suicide pilots.
There are many unanswered questions. No one here is panicking. But the concern is real enough. And it is far less likely that Israel, if attacked, would sit on its hands, as it did at the request of the first President Bush last time around. After 14 months of Palestinian intifada, neither Prime Minister Ariel Sharon nor his voters are in any mood to ride the punch, especially if this time there were Israeli casualties.
"If the United States launches a military attack on Iraq," said Israeli strategic analyst Yosef Alpher, "there is a high possibility that Iraq will attack Israel. But nobody really knows what they have to throw at us."
Western intelligence sources believe that Saddam's stock of ground-to-ground missiles and the launchers to fire them is limited. Some estimates put it as low as five launchers and 50 missiles. That's not enough to wage all-out war, but it is enough to cause damage, even though Israel has greatly enhanced its air and anti-missile defenses over the past decade.
The question of whether Iraqi pilots would kill themselves for Saddam is more open after Sept. 11 than it might have been before then. Iraq has a secular, if radical, regime. Unlike Osama bin Laden, Saddam is not a Muslim fanatic. His armed forces, weakened by two Gulf wars, are not the Taliban. But then, the pilots who flew into the World Trade Center did not fit the wretched-of-the-earth stereotype either. They were educated, middle- class, at ease in the West.
"I wouldn't put it beyond the realm of possibility," said Alpher, a former director of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, "that we shall see more Islamic suicide bombers, even from secular states like Iraq. We're seeing an escalation of the suicidal warrior idea in the Muslim world. It seems that they can recruit them very easily now."
On the diplomatic level, Israelis are also worried that an American campaign against Iraq might lead to stronger U.S. pressure for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arab and Muslim governments acquiesced in the bombing of Afghanistan, but they will need persuading to keep quiet if the U.S. attacks an Arab state like Iraq.
"In order to head off an Arab reaction," Alpher predicted, "we are likely to see greater American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere than the current mission of Gen. Anthony Zinni."
The retired marine commander arrived in the Middle East on Monday with a limited agenda and amid low expectations. His assignment was to convince Israelis and Palestinians to stop shooting and bombing each other.
Two Israelis were killed and dozens wounded Tuesday morning, when two Palestinian gunmen opened fire in a northern Israeli city. Islamic Jihad and the Al Aksa Brigade, a group affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack.
An epidemic of killings on both sides underscored the difficulty of bringing the parties back to the Mitchell and Tenet formulas for a cease-fire, followed by confidence-building measures, then renewed peace negotiations.
Both Israelis and Palestinians said they welcomed Secretary of State Colin Powell's Nov. 19 Middle East policy statement because it posed no immediate threat to either of them. But Arafat recognized that Uncle Sam was not going to deliver Israel on a plate, while Sharon was determined to keep the focus tightly on a cease-fire.
The Likud prime minister pulled rank on his more dovish Labor Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who couldn't wait to test his ingenuity one more time in political negotiations with Arafat. Sharon named Meir Dagan, a retired general with a 30-year record of smiting terrorists, to head the Israeli delegation. He also included Dore Gold, a hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations.
Foreign Ministry Director-General Avi Gill, a longtime Peres protégé, withdrew from the team in protest. It was his way of saying: "With negotiators like those, who needs enemies?" Now it is up to Zinni to prove him wrong.