An all-Arab attack on the Jewish state is chilling possibility

The ongoing violence in the territories has shifted attention away from what may be the gravest threat facing Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War: the possibility of a surprise, all-out Arab assault. For the first time in years, a dangerous confluence of factors has emerged, presenting the Arab states with a unique opportunity to launch a coordinated attack against the Jewish state.

Israel's traditional friends abroad have been largely preoccupied. America just ended a tight election campaign and elected a new president. Until the January inauguration, there will be a vacuum of power at the top. Though the United States would almost certainly come to Israel's aid if it were attacked, a lame-duck Clinton administration would be hard pressed to mount the requisite diplomatic effort to quell the violence swiftly.

That leaves the Europeans — but they are heavily dependent on Arab oil. The oil markets have been volatile, with the price per barrel now around $35, three times greater than a year ago.

In addition, Israel's image throughout the world has been battered by recent events. Israeli officials acknowledge that the Palestinians are winning the propaganda war. Increased sympathy for the Palestinians would soften the reaction of world public opinion were the Arab states to declare that they are coming to the defense of their Palestinian "brothers."

Internally, Israel is politically divided and psychologically ailing from decades of conflict and discord. The political system is in disarray, with many expecting new elections some time early next year. One million Israeli Arabs are seething with anger, as the riots in the north recently demonstrated. Secular-religious tensions and the dispute between left and right have divided the nation unlike ever before. Our Arab neighbors may perceive this division as a sign of national weakness waiting to be exploited.

Recent Israeli actions have served to reinforce the growing perception of Israeli vulnerability. The retreat under fire from Lebanon, the abandonment of Joseph's Tomb, and the repeated Israeli issuance of empty ultimatums have all sent signals of moral and psychological exhaustion.

On the ground, the Israeli army is strung out, with untold numbers of soldiers protecting dozens of settlements and roads throughout the territories. Other troops have been deployed along the Lebanese border to protect the northern communities from possible Hezbollah attacks. It may very well be that the army is spread too thin.

For an Arab strategic planner sitting in Cairo or Damascus, it would be difficult to ignore the temptation posed by Israel's current dilemma. With its allies distracted, its society split, its image besmirched and its security forces engaged, Israel would appear to be ripe for an attack.

As the 1973 Yom Kippur War demonstrated, such attacks are carefully planned and orchestrated in advance. A key component of any such plot would include deceptive measures designed to lull Israel into a false sense of security. As the late President Chaim Herzog pointed out in his history of the Arab-Israeli wars, Egypt launched a disinformation campaign in mid-1973 to create the impression that it was unprepared for war.

What if the recent Arab summit in Cairo were part of a similar campaign of deception?

The relatively moderate outcome of the summit would seem to belie such a possibility. But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's address, in which he intimated that Egypt is unprepared to go to war, sounded like a throwback to 1973. For years, Egypt has been spending billions of dollars to upgrade its armed forces and provide them with the latest American military technology. Mubarak's statement seems more like a smokescreen than a description of reality.

The dangers inherent in such a scenario should not be dismissed out of hand. If the Arab states were to launch a surprise attack, Israel would be faced with a conventional war on its borders at the same time as guerrilla warfare in the territories, a wave of terrorism in its cities and an uprising by a restive Israeli Arab population.

As strong as we are, this may be too much to bear. Even victory would come at a calamitous price. The only way to minimize the danger is to prepare for it in advance. It is the duty and obligation of our security establishment to be ready for even this possibility, lest the trauma of 1973 repeat itself.