TEL AVIV (Aug. 22)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has again put off deciding whether to issue gas masks to the public now or stick to the original plan to wait until year’s end.
The Cabinet is split on the issue, which has become a major public concern here, in view of the Persian Gulf crisis and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s threat to destroy Israel by chemical warfare.
Shamir informed the weekly meeting of the Ministerial Defense Committee on Wednesday that he would assign a small group of ministers to maintain a close watch on the situation.
They will decide, on the basis of developments, when to start distributing the masks and anti-chemical-warfare kits, now held in storage by the Israel Defense Force.
The prime minister did not name the members of this inner group nor, according to Cabinet sources, did he allow any of the ministers present to offer an opinion.
Their deliberations were held under a tight cloak of secrecy. Reporters were not only excluded but kept at a distance from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Normally when the ministers debate, reporters gather under an awning in the courtyard of the office compound, waiting for them to emerge. This time they were not let into the compound.
The ministers and IDF officers leaving the meeting were whisked away in their cars, without having to run a gauntlet of journalists.
Israel says it has sufficient gas masks and kits containing poison gas antidotes for the entire population.
It was planned some time ago to begin issuing them near the end of the year, first in the Tel Aviv area, then in the Galilee town of Safed and afterward in the rest of the country.
But Hussein’s threats and the military confrontation in the Persian Gulf since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2 have introduced a sense of urgency in Israel.
CONCERN ABOUT MISUSE OF MASKS
Earlier this week, Foreign Minister David Levy publicly called for the immediate distribution of gas masks to the populace. Although he apparently represents a minority view, his remarks intensified the debate.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens favors the original plan, unless an emergency arises.
He has the backing of the IDF high command, which is worried that premature distribution of gas masks would result in their misuse or damage by civilians, as was the case during an experimental distribution several years ago.
There is also serious concern that issuing gas masks could stir public panic and that it could be interpreted by Hussein as a signal that Israel was preparing a pre-emptive attack on Iraq.
Arens, meanwhile, is working closely with the head of the civil defense command at IDF headquarters.
On Tuesday, he announced the appointment of Maj. Gen. Ya’acov Lapidot, a battlefield veteran and recent head of the Defense Staff College, as his personal adviser on matters affecting the home front.
The defense minister is understood to want the personal counsel of an experienced officer on matters related to the home front, to balance the views offered by the IDF high command.