Like an ostracized kid whom the others don't want to allow into the game, Israel has been told to drop the idea of attacking Iraq in the event that it is attacked. This is a war of the big boys, Washington is saying, and in an international conflict the Israeli flag is a disruptive factor. The United States wants to foment a world war against Iraq in which as many countries as possible will participate, to mobilize the support - or at least the neutrality - of the Arab states, to forestall a situation of instability in the Islamic countries, to eliminate Saddam Hussein, to establish a local regime in Iraq and to continue to preserve its status in the Middle East.

This is an ambitious plan, which has every chance of failing. Because even if the military element of the plan succeeds, and Saddam takes a direct missile hit, no one has any idea what Iraq will be like after his disappearance from the scene. Those who followed the discussions of the Iraqi opposition last week in London saw the first act in a dress rehearsal. Even with everyone going out of their way to be polite and behave properly, as the world expects of them, the opposition leaders were unable to reach agreement.

We can imagine what will happen when control of Iraq becomes a playing field that is open to everyone. Will the Shi'ites be the first to reach the finishing line? Will the Kurds start shooting at them with the weapons they are now receiving from the United States? And what about the Sunnis, the Assyrians and the Turkmen? Some people are dreaming of a temporary American regime until matters calm down. It would not be amiss to retrieve the reports from Somalia from the archives or to read the daily reports coming from Afghanistan in order to understand the implications of an American administration in a Muslim country.

An Israeli "contribution" to this power struggle will place a heavy burden on an effort that already looks hallucinatory. Which Arab state (or even Turkey), after agreeing to support or turn a blind eye to a campaign against Saddam, will not be deterred by a war that will be construed in part as being fought in partnership with Israel? These countries cannot agree to have the war against Saddam turn into a "peace for Israel" war. The trauma that will be generated in the Arab countries by the removal of an Arab leader by a Western power will be more than enough. The imprint of an Israeli seal on the war will make Saddam a victim of Zionism and make the war unforgivable from the Arabs' point of view.

Naturally, these feelings are of no interest to Israel, though they ought to be. Very much so. Because this is what the status of the United States in the region on the day after the war depends on. And the status of the United States in the region has a direct bearing on Israel's security.

So much for logic. But what about self-defense? The answer to that is that an attack by Israeli planes or Israeli missiles on Iraq cannot compare to the vast might that the United States and Britain will deploy against Saddam. And if power on that scale is unable to deter the Iraqi leader, the Israel Air Force won't be able to accomplish the task, either. And prestige? Can the Israeli government allow itself to sit idly by when the country is being struck by long-range missiles and its citizens are under attack by poison gas?

It is here that can be found Israel's potential mistake, which is to think that if neither its planes nor its soldiers are taking an active part in the war, the country has thereby not protected its citizens. In this war, if it happens, Israel's strategic asset - which is the power of the United States - will be translated into concrete strength even if Israel doesn't fire a shot. Israel is getting a free ride in this war; all the driver is asking is that the hitchhiker sit quietly and not disturb him.

No one is denying the country's right to self-defense, but self-defense doesn't mean banging your head against the wall. What kind of self-defense will accrue to Israel if, because of a few sorties over Baghdad, it loses its ability to maneuver against the anti-Israel front? This is the same front that is only waiting for the moment that Israel intervenes so it can dissociate itself from its feeble agreement to Saddam's removal.