TEL AVIV (Jan. 7)
Israelis appear to be reacting relatively calmly to the approaching Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait and the growing possibility of war soon thereafter.
Saddam Hussein has said Tel Aviv would be the first target of his missiles if he is attacked by the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf.
But if Israelis are deeply worried about that threat, they are not showing it.
When the host of an Israel Radio call-in program asked what listeners plan to do on Jan. 15, the response was largely apathetic, with most callers replying, “Nothing.”
Retailers said there was no sign of panic buying of food or other necessities. The populace began stocking up when the Persian Gulf crisis started in August.
By now, Israeli households are believed to have adequate supplies of canned goods, transistor radios and flashlights, plenty of spare batteries, candles and matches.
Gas masks were distributed to 80 percent of the population in October and November.
The remaining 20 percent, living in thinly populated rural areas, clamored for equal protection. One resident appealed to the High Court of Justice.
Rather than risk a court order, the authorities decided to distribute the masks, though an Israel Defense Force spokesman described the risk of a poison gas attack on Israel as “very low” and even lower in rural areas.
While Israelis do not ignore the imminent threat, the public seems more concerned with long-term consequences. They know that if the Jan. 15 deadline passes without Iraqi compliance, war still will not be inevitable.
MORE AIRLINES SUSPEND FLIGHTS
Many here are wondering what will happen in two or three years if the present crisis is resolved by a compromise that leaves Hussein in control of Iraq, his large standing army intact and his military-industrial complex untouched.
Iraq would continue developing chemical and bacterial warfare agents, long-range missiles and, the Israelis are certain, nuclear weapons in the not-too-distant future.
Most people here agree it would be hard to put together another international alliance to face a new crisis with Iraq — a direct threat to Israel, for example — after the present U.S.-led international coalition has long departed the region.
Meanwhile, more urgent problems have developed. International airlines are suspending or severely curtailing service to the region, citing skyrocketing insurance rates as the deadline approaches.
South African Airlines, the Scandinavian airline SAS, LOT Polish Airlines and Cyprus Airways announced this week they were suspending service to Tel Aviv.
Pan American World Airways made the announcement last week, and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and British Airways announced sharply reduced service.
Another American carrier, TWA, said it would continue it flights to Israel but will charge an extra $50 per ticket to cover rising insurance rate.
Israel’s own national airline, El Al, will continue flying under any circumstances. It will honor the tickets of foreign carriers that have canceled flights to Israel.
But Israel is not the only Middle East country affected by the cutbacks. Several airlines have suspended flights to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the insurance premiums on which are said to equal almost a quarter of the cost of a new airplane.
A SCRAMBLE FOR TICKETS
According to South African Airlines, insurance premiums have jumped from $6,000 to $250,000 per flight. They go as high as $750,000 if the aircraft remains on the ground in Israel more than five hours.
The chairman of the Panel of Airline Operators in Israel said the average premium per flight for a DC-9, one of the smaller aircraft flying to Israel, would rise from $6,000 to $80,000 on Jan. 9. It would be higher if the aircraft remained overnight in Israel.
Some airlines have arranged to drop off passengers in Tel Aviv, fly to Nicosia, Cyprus, or to Athens for an overnight stay and return to Ben-Gurion Airport briefly the next morning to pick up passengers.
The flight cutbacks apparently have caused some panic among foreigners in Israel worried they will not be able to leave the country in the event of war. Media reports Sunday said hundreds of foreigners besieged ticket counters at Ben-Gurion Airport, offering cash for immediate flights out.
But on Monday, the airlines reported only slightly higher than usual demand, which was not unexpected considering the travel advisories issued by various embassies advising their nationals to leave the region before Jan. 15.
An El Al spokesman said there was no noticeable increase in the number of Israelis leaving the country. Tourism was down, but people leaving on business or professional trips was “completely normal,” El Al said.
Jewish Agency and Absorption Ministry officials expect a reduced flow of immigrants from the Soviet Union between now and Jan. 15.
Officials in Moscow say many Jews who have been waiting impatiently for airline seats to Israel are now willing to postpone their departures until the immediate danger of war in the region has passed.