JERUSALEM (Jan. 28)
Many Israelis are on edge. Mounting signs of an imminent U.S. military response in Iraq are prompting concerns about whether the country should brace itself for another round of missile attacks from Baghdad similar to what happened in the 1991 Gulf War.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to the growing uneasiness, “We are following events closely, and are prepared for all eventualities. The Israeli government is acting responsibly and with all due caution.”
Israel has been closely monitoring the situation, particularly after President Clinton’s stern warning to Baghdad in his State of the Union address and after chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler said in an interview that Baghdad had enough biological and chemical warheads to destroy the population of Tel Aviv.
But Israeli officials said it was unlikely that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would launch missiles at Israel as long as U.N. weapons inspectors were still in Iraq.
Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan told Israel Radio that Butler was talking mostly about the “potential” of an attack on Israel, not the likelihood.
“Obviously, we are particularly concerned about the fact that Saddam Hussein is trying to evade his commitments and obligations and the inspections of the U.N.,” he said.
“But as long as the inspectors are there, we have a sense from the military establishment that there is hardly any chance at all that he will be able to put together any warheads.”
He added that Israel was being “brought up to date constantly by the United States.”
The talk of a possible U.S. military action comes almost exactly seven years after the start of Operation Desert Storm, when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel.
Despite fears at the time that the Iraqis were using chemical or biological warfare, all the missiles had conventional warheads.
At least one Knesset member, Zvi Weinberg, of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, believed that there could be a new round of Iraqi missile attacks on Israel.
“It is quite clear there is a great likelihood that the United States has already decided to hit Iraq within two weeks time, and there is a possibility, without going into a panic, that [Saddam] will repeat his actions from the Gulf War, and we have to be ready for it,” he told Israel Radio.