TEL AVIV (Jan. 24)
The Iraqi SCUD missiles that have three times wreaked havoc over the Tel Aviv area are a terror weapon that appear to have a more serious psychological than physical impact on Israelis.
But the shooting down of a SCUD Wednesday night over Haifa by a U.S. Patriot anti-missile battery has restored public confidence in the American weapon, which failed to neutralize the missile that hit Ramat Gan on Tuesday night.
It is hoped the new sense of reassurance will slow down the exodus from the greater Tel Aviv area, which has borne the brunt of the missile attacks, and reduce disruption to the economy caused by absenteeism and anxiety.
If those are indeed the results, they will strengthen Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s efforts to avoid being dragged into the Persian Gulf war by Saddam Hussein.
Militarily, the SCUDs are ineffective, with their 550-pound, high-explosive warheads having the destructive power of a car bomb, a terror weapon known to Israelis.
They leave a big crater in the ground and scatter metal splinters and glass shards over a wide area.
Psychologically, however, their effect has been to make many residents of the Tel Aviv area ardently wish they were elsewhere.
There has been a major exodus from the city’s environs since the first SCUDs struck on Jan. 18. But it is hard to say just how many have departed Israel’s largest urban area.
JUST ‘VISITING FRIENDS’
Half the town has left, according to some, surely an exaggeration. Nevertheless, considerable numbers of Tel Aviv “refugees” are turning up at hotels in Jerusalem and Eilat, or at scattered kibbutzim, which are unlikely targets of missile attacks.
They usually say they are “visiting friends.”
A corresponding phenomenon is the proliferation of bumper stickers in Tel Aviv announcing “I’ve stayed on.”
The fortitude of the general population and its ability to weather the strains of the present situation without disrupting the economy are a key element in Shamir’s policy-making considerations. He can more easily maintain the government’s policy of restraint if he is confident the central area of the country is holding firm.
Before the Patriot success Wednesday night, this was palpably not the case, with droves of Tel Aviv residents flying out to Eilat, motoring up to the north with their families in tow, or checking in with friends and relatives in Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements.
Many breadwinners, in a pattern reminiscent of Londoners during the Blitz, have moved their families out of the Tel Aviv region while they themselves commute to work.
Homebound traffic jams are smaller, but the evening rush hour now begins in the afternoon.
Since the emergency began, banks, businesses and many shops close early.
Nightlife has come to a virtual halt. Movie houses have canceled their evening shows. Virtually no night clubs, restaurants or cafes are open because of lack of customers.
No bars stay open at night, except those frequented by singles who don’t want to be alone.
Proud Tel Aviv residents cite Londoners who endured the Blitz 50 years ago and say, “They lived through six years of war. We can take it for a few weeks.”
DECIDED IN PRINCIPLE TO RETALIATE
But beyond its effect on national morale, the Patriot success helped solidify the informal accord between Shamir and President Bush, whereby Israel will stay out of the war as long as the attacks remain conventional and as long as the United States and its allies can show concrete progress in reducing the missile threat.
Significantly, pollsters and reporters have found a high degree of support for Shamir’s policy of restraint among the public.
The ordinary Israeli is fully aware of the military and political complexities facing the prime minister and the Israel Defense Force. Israelis seem as reluctant as Shamir to give Saddam Hussein the prize he seeks, which is Israeli involvement in the war.
On Thursday morning, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger called on Shamir before leaving Israel, for what the prime minister’s spokesman, Avi Pazner, described as a particularly friendly meeting.
It reflected in tone and tenor the steadily closer cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem that has evolved during this crisis.
Israeli leaders stress they have decided in principle to exact punishment from Iraq for its attacks.
But the clear signal emanating from Jerusalem is that Israel’s move will be carefully planned and designed to achieve maximum effect. It will be launched only if and when it does not endanger the cohesiveness of the U.S.-led coalition or disrupt the ongoing allied campaign.
If the Patriots can ward off all or most of what Hussein can still fling at Israel, the impairment of its deterrent posture and the private pain and loss caused by attacks will be eased. The allies, meanwhile, can get on with their job without having to worry constantly over the political and military complications of an Israeli intervention.