Israeli Public Remains Calm As Leaders Debate Iraq Policy

Israelis might be excused for being a bit pessimistic these days: They’ve lost more than 600 people in a two-year terrorist onslaught, the economy is in the dumps, the country is internationally isolated and another war is looming in the region.

So it’s noteworthy that so many Israelis walk around these days with the feeling that they won’t suffer from an American war against Iraq.

It’s noteworthy because of the accepted wisdom that if the United States attacks Iraq, Iraq is likely to attack Israel, just as it did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

It’s noteworthy because, according to recent news reports, the home front is not fully prepared for an Iraqi missile attack and authorities may have to rely more on good luck than on serious planning.

The reason for the public calm may be the reassuring comments by the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, who said he worries about the Palestinian front but “does not lose sleep” over Iraq.

The calm may result from intelligence estimates that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has little in the way of chemical and biological warfare capabilities, and in any case will be reluctant to expose those programs by using such arms against Israel.

It may be reports that Israel’s anti-missile defense system is now much better than it was during the Gulf War. It might be Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s prediction that a U.S. military attack against Iraq won’t begin until the end of November, letting Israelis push off their worries for a few more weeks.

Or it might just be that after two years of Palestinian terrorist attacks, Israelis are exhausted and indifferent.

“I’m not afraid. I figure that whatever will be, will be,” said Bella Aharon, a secretary at a Haifa youth center. “The reason may be that my three adult daughters live in the United States, so I don’t need to worry about them.”

Aharon stocked up with 40 bottles of mineral water, “just in case.” But when her next-door neighbor suggested that the families pool several thousand dollars to turn their conventional air-raid shelter into an atomic-proof shelter, she turned him down.

“I can find better use for my little savings,” Aharon said.

The Iraq-Israel-Palestinian triangle will be among the issues discussed when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets President Bush in Washington next week.

Unlike British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush largely has tried to keep the Iraqi and Palestinian crises separate, at least overtly. He has, however, criticized recent Israeli military responses to Palestinian terrorism, fearing they jeopardize American efforts to build an international coalition for war with Iraq.

In his meeting with Sharon, Bush is expected to repeat the U.S. request that Israel stay out of the Iraqi conflict — even if attacked — and keep a low profile in the conflict with the Palestinians.

At the last Cabinet meeting, Sharon instructed his ministers to stop talking about Iraq.

Though Sharon says Israel reserves the right to respond if attacked, it’s unclear what ultimately will happen. Sources close to Sharon suggest that even in case of a missile attack against Israel, “the tendency will be not to respond unless there are many casualties, or in case of the use of biological or chemical warfare.”

On the Israeli street, however, there is no evident tension or nervousness, and certainly no hysteria. Sensationalistic media reports — such as the one about Ramat Gan’s plans to evacuate the entire city in case of missile attacks, or to turn a nearby park into a mass graveyard — have been few.

In any case, Israelis take such reports with a grain of salt: They regard them mainly as attempts by the authorities to show that they are prepared for the worst.

However, there are some signs that the establishment is not quite ready. An emergency exercise last week at the giant Pi Glilot gas depot in northern Tel Aviv showed that local firefighting services are ill-equipped to deal with a massive disaster.

The state comptroller’s report released this week pointed out massive holes in the Tel Aviv municipality’s emergency services. And members of the Knesset Interior Committee warned this week that the authorities have not really prepared the public for the possibility of a missile attack.

“Suppose a missile hits my town and I live on the seventh floor,” Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism said to Col. Gilad Shinar, an IDF official. “What do I do — close myself in a sealed room? Run down to the shelter? Why don’t you start telling the public what to do?”

“The public is calm,” Shinar replied. “All information will come in due course.”

Some wonder if the techniques learned for the Gulf War more than a decade ago — sealing a room with tape and having a gas mask at the ready — are useful now, especially if Saddam uses nonconventional weapons. Reports after the Gulf War said that neither step would have helped in the case of a chemical or biological attack.

“Sealed room, my foot,” Aharon scoffed. “Seal my room with masking tape against missiles? Come on!”

By and large, the only real action most Israelis have taken so far is to visit IDF distribution points for gas masks, where they replace their old masks and get atropine syringes against possible biological infection.

There are conflicting reports as to whether the army has sufficient masks in stock, and about which masks need to be replaced and when.

“How can I tell whether I need to replace my old mask?” a man recently asked the soldier guarding a distribution point in Haifa. The soldier scratched his chin.

“When did you last get it?” he asked.

“In 1998,” the man replied.

“Well,” said the soldier, “why don’t you bring the mask with you, and we’ll see what we can do.”

Eyal Golan, 42, a computer engineer from Shekhanya in the Galilee, believes war with Iraq is inevitable, but he doesn’t think Israel will be attacked as long as it keeps a low profile.

However, if it is attacked Israel should not just sit idly without responding, as it did in 1991 under fierce American pressure, most Israelis believe.

Golan has two children, Guy, 8, and Maya, 14.

“They are not nervous and neither are we,” he said. “Living away from the large population centers, we feel that nothing much can happen.”

Should Israel use the window of war with Iraq to launch a peace “offensive” with the Palestinians, as happened after the Gulf War? The Madrid peace conference later in 1991 set the stage two years later for the Oslo peace accords.

“We don’t need to wait for the war,” Golan’s wife, Tamar, replied. “We should do it right now.”

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