Middle East

Israeli Responses to U.S. Plans to Attack Iraq

Cautious Cheers

Israeli man tries on new gas mask
An Israeli man tries on a new gas mask at a Jerusalem shopping mall, Sept. 9, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

“Bush's speech marked the beginning of the end of Saddam Hussein,” Israel’s Channel 1 TV news began its Sept. 13 coverage of U.S. President George W. Bush’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly the previous day, in which he called on world leaders to confront the “grave and gathering danger” Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses to the world.

“Bush Is Ready for Battle,” read the Sept. 13 headline in Tel Aviv’s centrist Ma’ariv. “No ifs or buts: The United States is ready to deal with Iraq,” the paper cheered.

A U.S. bid to oust Saddam Hussein would be welcome news in Israel. But the country’s response to Bush’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric was initially cautious, though tinged with satisfaction that the threat Iraq poses to Israel was once again on the global agenda. For the most part, though, government officials and columnists alike restrained their applause until they could gauge the international response. There seemed to be a tacit understanding among commentators that too enthusiastic a reaction from Israel would undermine U.S. efforts to build a broad coalition for a military strike against Iraq by providing Arab critics of the war with reason to decry the “conspiracy between the United States and the Zionists” aimed at dominating the Middle East.

Since then, the Israeli media have started to debate in earnest whether Israel should retaliate if Iraq attacks Israel when the shooting begins. Israelis are understandably more nervous now about a chemical or biological attack than they have been since the 1991 Gulf War. The government is distributing gas masks, analysts are debating the utility of sealed “safe rooms” in the event of a biological or chemical attack, and Israel has become the first country to vaccinate emergency workers against smallpox.

As Alex Fishman wrote in the Sept. 13 edition of Tel Aviv's centrist Yediot Aharonot, “Bush's speech started the countdown…. Until the end of November, Israel must prepare itself again for the possibility of the use of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East.” And on Sept. 17 Ma'ariv reported that Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak, two Tel Aviv suburbs, “Are working on elaborate plans to evacuate their citizens if Israel would come under Iraqi attack, and are cooperating to develop a joint morgue.”

“The speech was to the point and forceful,” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres remarked on Sept. 12. By Sept. 17, his own statements had become more forceful. "If the international community does not take a stand against Hussein,” Peres told journalists from Tel Aviv’s liberal Ha’aretz, “It could be a repeat of Europe's mistake when it did not face Adolf Hitler in 1939.” Peres described Israel as a “loyal soldier” in support of the United States in its quest to dislodge Saddam Hussein. “When somebody goes to war he knows there are risks. You don't do it out of pleasure but you do it with the deep conviction that by running away from what should be done, you solve nothing and you make the situation worse.... We can imagine having dangers,” Peres said. “But this is our duty. We belong to the same world. We shall not pass the buck.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has never hidden his desire to be rid of Saddam Hussein, has joined the cheering for the new U.S. focus on striking Baghdad. The Sept. 13 edition of the conservative, English-language Jerusalem Post reported on Netanyahu’s testimony before the U.S. House Government Reform Committee the previous day: “Two decades ago,” he told U.S. lawmakers, “It was possible to thwart Saddam's nuclear ambitions by bombing a single installation [On June 7, 1981, the Israeli Air Force bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility near Baghdad—WPR]. But today, nothing less than dismantling this regime will do.”

The editors of the Jerusalem Post anticipated that Iraq might offer to comply with the relevant U.N. resolutions, as indeed it did on Sept. 16, but warned that this would only lead to prolonged deliberations and no genuine transparency on Baghdad’s part. Why, they asked, should inspections prove more conclusive than they did throughout the 1990s? “It is doubtful that any inspections or [U.N.] sanctions can succeed,” the paper’s Sept. 13 editorial read. “Of all the virtues George W. Bush was thought to bring to the White House, a talent for oratory was not among them…. [Since then], he has proved more than eloquent. He has given persuasive expression to necessary policies…. From where we sit, the case against Iraq could not be plainer…. The U.N. Security Council must now set a tight deadline for bringing Iraq into compliance with all resolutions.”

Yehoshua Shemes, in a Sept. 13 article for Tel Aviv’s Hatzofeh, the organ of the right-wing National Religious Party, denied the need for a U.N. mandate and scoffed at what he saw as the United States’ reluctance to act. “The United States has wasted a year…A year ago, the world stood united behind the United States, which had a free hand to do whatever it wanted against the ‘axis of evil’ in the war on terror. Now, even Americans themselves oppose a war with Iraq…. Nonetheless, we can safely assume that sooner or later the United States will attack. It can't go back on its threat. But it has lost points. A strike now will be less effective than it could have been a couple of months ago.”

Yediot Aharonot, in a Sept. 17 editorial, suggested that the U.S. administration has not appreciated Israeli comments about the possible consequences of an Iraqi strike at Israel. "Like in a nightmare, the Americans are finding out that it is impossible to house-train the Israelis," the paper’s editors joked before adopting a more serious tone: "President Bush now needs wide-ranging, global support more than anything…. Israel's bursts of energy are a millstone around his neck. Not only is there no prudence here, but real damage as well.”

In his Sept. 13 column for Ha’aretz, the renowned military analyst Ze'ev Shiff also urged caution but expressed certainty that Israel would become an Iraqi target if the United States launched an attack against Baghdad. Israelis, he wrote, must prepare in earnest for a regional war. “We have to take into account that outsiders, like Hezbollah, will use the Iraqi situation as a means to attack us…. Washington must make sure that Syria will restrain Hezbollah…. Moreover,” Shiff warned, “Israel has to realize that it would be a grave mistake to use the war with Iraq to settle accounts with the Palestinians and with President Yasser Arafat. Any such attempt, even in reaction to a terror attack by the Palestinians once the war on Iraq begins, could undermine the entire U.S. mission.”

A strike against Iraq will likely bring back painful memories for many Israelis. During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq fired 39 SCUD missiles at Israel, which, thanks to their inaccuracy, caused little damage. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir did not retaliate. It was the first time in Israel’s history that Israel had not returned fire after being attacked.

Few expect Israel to be as restrained this time. As early as November 2001, Sharon made it clear that he would return any Iraqi fire on Israel. In 1991, Israeli retaliation would have threatened the international coalition aligned against Iraq, which included several Arab states. The absence of a coalition now moots that concern.

In a Sept. 17 editorial, Yediot Aharonot posited another reason for the change in Israel’s policy this time around: Ariel Sharon. "There are many differences between the war on the way and that which we experienced as the Gulf War,” the editorial read. “Memories [of the Iraqi attack on Israel] will certainly contribute to preparedness and readiness, but it is the contrast between [Shamir’s] sagacious leadership [and Sharon’s] which is leading to increased fears for the near future…. This time, it will be more difficult for the Israeli government to remain calm and not take an unnecessary adventurous leap.”

None of this has reassured Israelis about what the coming months hold. A letter to the right-wing, pro-settler online publication Arutz Sheva published on Sept. 13 expressed doubts that the United States could paralyze Iraq's missile-launching capability in Western Iraq at the beginning of any offensive, as it has promised to do. “That's exactly what these goyim [non-Jews] vowed to do in 1991,” Arutz Sheva’s reader exclaimed. “God help us!”

Others feared Saddam Hussein’s removal would destabilize the region. “It would be ridiculous to attack Iraq now,” Yediot Aharonot’s Alon Liel fumed on Sept. 12. “To concentrate on Saddam [Hussein] will leave less time to deal with two other evildoers: [Osama] Bin-Laden and Arafat, who will get a breather. Iraq might be close to acquiring nuclear and chemical weapons, but as we saw exactly a year ago, you don’t even need a pistol to bring down the World Trade Center. If you really want to, a box cutter will do. Any attempt to topple Saddam Hussein needs a broad, Western coalition…. Because once Hussein is gone, the entire Middle East will change in unpredictable ways.”

Israeli Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz is more sanguine. “Hussein's downfall could provide a window of opportunity for the Middle East,” the Sept. 17 edition of Ha’aretz quoted him as saying. “[It could] push forward negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”