Israels deterrent power will keep Saddam at bay

Although Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is probably the most insular of despots, with little direct acquaintance of the world around him, he is no doubt an avid fan of CNN, a news network that in recent months has featured him regularly. These past few weeks, he must have really enjoyed watching Israelis besieging the distribution centers for gas masks and the frantic preparations being made in anticipation of the biological warfare he is presumably planning to launch against Israel.

Without firing a shot or issuing a threat, he has scored a psychological triumph. The Israelis, against whom he launched 39 Scud missiles during the Gulf War without drawing a response, are now discussing whether they should again turn the other cheek if they are hit. This must have been the "good news" for him, as opposed to some of the "bad news" that was coming out of Washington.

Actually, not only is there no need to panic, there is little reason to worry.

Firstly, Saddam's current arsenal of missiles, launchers, and chemical and biological warheads represents a fraction of what was in his possession during the Gulf War. Although he should not be believed when he declares he has no more weapons of mass destruction, seven years of work by the U.N. inspection teams have produced results, and his capability to launch such weapons today is quite limited.

Secondly, the motive for his criminal attacks against Israel seven years ago does not exist today. In 1991, he was faced by a broad coalition of forces assembled by President Bush that included Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. It was not completely unreasonable for him to expect that by attacking Israel and eliciting an Israeli military response, he could bring about a breakup of that coalition, with the Arab members finding it impossible to be aligned alongside Israel in a war against another Arab country.

Such a coalition does not exist now, and it is clear that President Clinton will not be able to convince any of the major Arab countries to participate in military action against Iraq. Today, aggression against Israel can hold no potential rewards for Saddam.

Thirdly, Saddam has good reason to fear the magnitude of the Israeli response should he attack us with non-conventional weapons. During the Gulf War, he did not use the chemical and biological warheads that were at his disposal. Irrational as he may seem to be to the Western mind, he was smart enough to realize that there was a threshold he had better not cross. Israeli deterrence worked.

In this sense the Israeli deterrent has not been in the least impaired. It continues to hang as a threat over Saddam's head and is likely to clear his mind quickly anytime he begins to contemplate the use of non-conventional weapons against Israel.

The upshot is that this time, unlike in the months preceding the Gulf War, neither Saddam nor any of his spokesmen have uttered threats against Israel. On the contrary, messages are being relayed to us through third parties that he has no intention of attacking Israel.

It is not only Israelis that have exaggerated the danger that Saddam's weapons pose to us. Many Palestinians, their fertile imaginations vastly inflating his capabilities, are demonstrating in the streets, exhorting him to use non-conventional weapons against Israel. Their hatred of Israel seems to know no bounds. Showing their true colors, they are not making a positive contribution to the peace process.

The Middle East continues to be a difficult neighborhood. Despots like Saddam Hussein, Syria's Hafez Assad and Libya's Moammar Khadafy will continue in their attempts to stir up trouble and disturb the peace of mind of people around the globe. Alertness is called for, but not panic.

During more than 40 years of the Cold War, the people of the United States and Western Europe knew that the Soviet Union had the capability to launch nuclear warheads against their cities. They lived with this potential danger, fully confident that the deterrent capability of the United States would be effective in averting it. The Israeli public has every reason to have the same kind of confidence in Israel's deterrent capability.