JERUSALEM (Jul. 19)
Israeli leaders, concerned by the recent acquisition of advanced weaponry by Arab confrontation states, are seeking to reassure the public that Israel retains the qualitative edge to deter and, if necessary, defeat any potential adversary.
That appeared to be the intent of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s comments in an interview published over the weekend in Yediot Achronot, Israel’s largest newspaper.
If the Arab states use ballistic missiles against Israel, “they will get back a hundredfold and more. And if they use chemical weapons, their cities will be laid to waste.” Rabin warned.
That was uncharacteristic language coming from the usually cool, understated defense chief. Rabin is not given to saber-rattling, as are some of his more voluble Cabinet colleagues.
The newspaper inferred from his remarks, and those of unnamed others in the defense establishment, that Israel is genuinely worried about recent large-scale Arab arms deals.
“Worried — Yes. Panicky — No” was the headline over the Yediot Achronot story. It seemed to sum up the message Israeli leaders want to get across with respect to the massive arms deal just concluded between Britain and Saudi Arabia, rumored to be worth at least $30 billion.
SHAMIR NOT ALARMED
Causing additional concern are an earlier sale of intermediate range missiles to Saudis by the People’s Republic of China and persistent, disturbing reports of Syrian advances in rocketry, chemical warfare and missile-stockpiling.
In an interview last week, Premier Yitzhak Shamir told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he was concerned, but not yet alarmed, by these developments.
He and Rabin stress that the massive arms purchases by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states are aimed against possible aggression by Iran.
But Israel fears that once the Iran-Iraq war ends, the huge arsenal inevitably will find its way to Arab-Israeli battlefields.
Saudi Arabia was only a token participant in past Arab-Israeli wars. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it made a big show of sending a relatively modest force to help Israel’s immediate neighbors.
But 15 years ago, the Saudis were not a military force to be reckoned with. Now they possess a sizeable air force, composed of the latest and best warplanes from Western manufacturers.
SYRIA STOCKPILING, TOO
They include American F-15s and AWACS surveillance aircraft, as well as British Tornado fighters and Black Hawk troop-carrying helicopters.
In addition, the Saudis have begun receiving from China intermediate-range CSS-2 ground-to-ground missiles, capable of reaching any target in Israel, while its neighbor, Kuwait, is seeking to buy American F-18 fighters.
Syria, too, is stockpiling missiles. With Saudi financing, it is reported to be buying Chinese M-9 missiles with a range of 550 miles. These would be added to Syria’s Soviet-supplied SS-21 missiles, which can carry nuclear or chemical warheads.
Israel has intelligence estimates of Syrian chemical warfare production. Chemical weapons have already been used in the region by Iraq against Iran. Israeli military planners cannot rule out their use in another Arab war with Israel.
The growing threat of ballistic missiles is being met by Israel’s development of the American-financed Arrow anti-missile missile.
The project is part of President Reagan’s cherished Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars,” which accounts for the generous American financing.
AIR FORCE STILL THE BEST
But “Star Wars” itself is a seriously flawed concept, according to many experts, and Arrow alone cannot protect Israel from the threat of missile warfare, should it materialize.
Israel, therefore, must send an unambiguous message to its foes that given its small size, concentrated population and vulnerability, it would strike back with terrible force against any missile attack.
How Israel would do this is not precisely spelled out. All experts agree, however, that Israel’s air force remains the most formidable in the region, despite the impressive growth and improvement of some of the Arab air forces.
Another response to the challenge is already discernible pressure to increase the defense budget, which has been subjected to two consecutive years of deep cuts and retrenchments.
The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has already strained available resources beyond the limit.
The defense establishment has been reticent, but outside observers are already questioning how the ongoing uprising will affect the Israel Defense Force’s deployment, order of priorities and morale.
Rabin and Shamir both stress that the Palestinians do not pose a threat to Israel’s existence. Shamir called the “intifada,” the Arabic name for the uprising, more of a nuisance than a serious military challenge.
Nevertheless, in terms of exposure and public consciousness, it is the intifada that absorbs most of the IDF’s time and effort, and is affecting its image and morale to a degree many military analysts find worrisome.