Israelis annoyed, not scared, in latest Saddam crisis

JERUSALEM — With the latest crisis involving Iraq at least temporarily defused, Israelis are sticking to their view that while Saddam Hussein is good at exposing his menacing teeth, he is more of a cat than a tiger.

Despite vivid memories of Scud missiles raining down on Israeli cities during the Persian Gulf War, the general assessment among experts this time around was that Israel would not have been involved in any potential military confrontation.

Indeed, the resolution of the crisis — Iraq has allowed the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, including the Americans whom Iraq had sought to bar — only reinforced the view that one should let sleeping Saddams lie, even if once in a while they wake up and growl.

"From Israel's point of view, the past five years had not been negative at all," said reserves Maj. Gen. Giora Rom, who served as the Israel Defense Force liaison officer to Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led international coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

Rom said that while an Israeli military plan was in the works at the time, "we were very lucky we did not have to test our ability."

Thanks to the U.N. supervision over the past years, he said, "the slowdown in the production of mass-destruction arms was much more effective than had Israel decided to opt for the military option."

But while the threat of immediate conflict between the United States and Iraq dissipated last weekend, the latest showdown has revived debate over potential successors to Saddam, the preparedness of Israeli cities for missile attacks and whether Israel should contemplate seeking a dialogue with Saddam.

Israeli academic and military experts generally agree that a familiar Saddam is better than unknown alternatives.

"Even the Americans have not decided to eliminate Saddam," said Ofra Banjo of Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center.

"They are playing a double game. They speak of Saddam as the ultimate menace, implying that his overthrow would solve problems, but actually they have no interest in eliminating him because they are concerned [about] splitting Iraq."

Moreover, she added, there is no guarantee that a post-Saddam Iraq would be a stable country.

Columnist Tommy Lapid of Ma'ariv suggested that if Saddam is replaced, international supervision would be lifted, making the new ruler stronger — and potentially more dangerous — than Saddam.

But some experts disagree, advocating the overthrow of Saddam.

"Saddam Hussein is the problem, not Iraq," said Ron Ben-Yishai, a military analyst for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

While analysts and talk shows focused on the conflict with Iraq over the past few weeks, Israeli officials and citizens alike played down the possibility of Israeli involvement.

One exception was Ariel Sharon, the national infrastructure minister, who warned that unlike six years ago, Israel would not sit idle in the face of a missile attack.

During the Gulf War, the government of Yitzhak Shamir, under pressure from the Bush administration, held the Israeli military in check as dozens of Iraqi Scud missiles hit the Jewish state.

Washington was concerned at the time that any Israeli military action might weaken the international coalition, which included several Arab countries.

In the latest crisis, however, no Arab country lined up behind the American threats of a military strike at Iraq.

Still, Israeli officials sought to reassure Israelis that they were not in danger.

"Israel's residents can continue living their lives normally and with security," Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said last week as the efforts to defuse the crisis were moving ahead.

However, such statements did not completely calm the general public.

Thousands of anxious Israelis flocked to gas-mask distribution centers. The Israel Defense Force reported a five-fold increase in the number of Israelis who were filing into the centers, spurred by concern that Iraq might launch missiles armed with chemical or biological warheads.

None of the Scud missiles launched during the Gulf War had unconventional warheads, but not knowing that in advance, Israelis were instructed to don gas masks and flee to bomb shelters and sealed rooms each time Iraq launched a missile.

The missiles caused extensive property damage and several indirect deaths.

As the latest conflict unfolded, Israel's deputy defense minister, Silvan Shalom, insisted that Israel's cities are well-prepared for a possible missile attack.

But others were less certain. "Israel's cities are not prepared for such an attack," said Eli Landau, mayor of Herzliya.

Reuven Pedahtzur, a military analyst for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, said Israel's preparedness was not much better than six years ago, "with the marginal exception that the masks are somewhat better made." As Israelis acknowledged Saddam's staying power, the latest crisis revived a debate over whether it would be worthwhile to establish a dialogue with Saddam. "Instead of thinking how to eliminate Saddam, let's start thinking how we can talk to him," said Landau, who was one of the first Likud Party members to advocate a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, years before the Oslo Accords.

But Banjo, of the Dayan Center, maintained that any suggestion of a dialogue is futile.

"There was no chance in the past, and even less so today, for a dialogue between Saddam Hussein and Israel," Banjo said, adding that Iraq continues to view Israel and the United States as its worst enemies.