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"The common flak jacket [protective vest] used in the infantry corps provides protection against the threat of shrapnel," writes Lieutenant Colonel Mordechai, head of the Personal Protection Branch, in the premiere issue of the General Staff's technological journal. But then he goes on to append some serious qualifications to this banal, seemingly obvious statement.

While the jacket does serve its purpose in reducing the number of soldiers killed or seriously wounded by shrapnel from grenades, mines, shells, bombs and rockets, "thanks to its ability to slow down or stop shrapnel," it makes it harder for the soldier to function in combat, does not prevent certain types of injuries and, depending on the angle of the hit and the speed of the projectile, can even cause injuries inflicted by light firearms to be of greater severity by increasing their concussive effect; such contact may also cause a fragment of the jacket to shear off and hit the wearer or someone near him in the eye. If the panel of the jacket is pushed inward by the force of a projectile, it can injure the soldier's internal organs. Effective protection requires a cautious balance among a whole range of factors, Mordechai concludes.

The utility of the flak jacket is a matter unto itself, but it may also be viewed as an allegory for Israel's readiness to absorb an Iraqi strike: On the face of it, one would expect the answer to be totally positive - of course, Israel is prepared - but in fact, there are a number of hidden, problematic aspects.

The 1991 Gulf War taught Israeli citizens that there is no such thing as perfect protection - the thing that can halt an explosive warhead may be permeable to bacteria; the thing that can bring down a Scud could also harm homes on the ground, like the Patriot missiles that were programmed to intercept Scuds in their trajectories and adhered to that mission, even after the Scud hit the ground, or intercepted them so close to the ground that the damage was spread over a wider area.

In the wake of the war, the Home Front Command was established and, a dozen years later, its job appears to be protecting the rears of politicians on the eve of elections. Yosef Mishlev, a senior officer in the Home Front Command, was grumbling this week about the filmed visit of Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz to a rescue drill. A few months ago, during an earlier wave of panic over the impending war in Iraq, a more complex and large-scale drill was held, involving simulated rescue operations from bombed high-rises. Then, the officer was amazed to see that the only ones who bothered to observe the drill were the country's fire commissioner and the chairman of the board of one infrastructure company. And it was better that way: The presence of the prime minister and defense minister, with their entourages, security details and photographers, got in the way of the people conducting the drill.

In his book about the Israel Defense Forces, the government and the Gulf War, Moshe Arens, who was defense minister in 1991, describes Sharon as having been preposterously gung-ho for battle, clamoring at age 63 to do active reserve duty and demanding that Israel dispatch jets to Iraq even without coordination with Washington. Now Sharon is finally in control, and he's exuding responsibility and sober judgment, with just a little pinch of fear-mongering.

Sharon isn't about to tell Israeli citizens one simple truth: Each one of them is equipped with the information to make an individual decision and just as entitled to exercise his or her own judgment as the "captains" who pretend to be leading them. Every head of a household is his or her own head of military intelligence. Neither the army or the government or the intelligence services can give citizens perfect advice: Is it better to remain at home or to run to a shelter, or to go abroad for a relaxing vacation? After all, what could possibly happen in Bali or Mombasa? On the one hand, everyone knows that the likelihood of an Iraqi missile striking the country is low, but if it does occur, no one can predict just where it might hit. Therefore, no one will speak in absolute, certain terms.

The old illusion that there must be someone up there who really knows what is going to happen and what should be done has always been based on naivete and ignorance. But now it is completely superfluous. The U.S. State Department published yet more travel advisories this week - this time to Jordan, Tajikistan, Venezuela and the Solomon Islands. These advisories do not provide security in any sense of the word. What they are is insurance: The ones issuing the warnings are insuring themselves against possible claims of negligence.

For example, the embassy in Amman announced that family members of diplomats and non-essential personnel were not being instructed to evacuate Jordan, but whoever lives there or plans to visit there must carefully weigh the risks, take into consideration the possibility of assassination attempts, and exercise the utmost caution. Travel to Jordan is not prohibited, but anyone who undertakes to go there does so at his or her own risk. The American administration will not bear responsibility if anything untoward happens.

These convoluted formulations will become a bit more straightforward once an operation is launched against Iraq and the risk is increased. The only one who can call off the operation is Saddam Hussein - if he (or, rather, one of his doubles) were to appear and announce that he was resigning as president and leaving Baghdad. The American planners are swinging between two diametrical options: If they can kill Saddam in one blow, all the better, but if not, a partial siege that still leaves him an escape route - but without control of any weapons of mass destruction - would be preferable to a hermetic encirclement that still leaves him with the ability and determination to use such weaponry.

Yevgeny Primakov, the former Russian prime minister who earlier served as a member of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's Security and Foreign Affairs team during the 1991 Gulf War, recently wrote in an American foreign policy journal: "I have known Saddam Hussein since 1969, and I believe that I know him better than many people in Washington do." He said he believes that Saddam will retreat from his position at the last moment, as he always does. In the previous war, Moscow believed that Saddam might convert the spent nuclear fuel in his possession to radioactive warheads, Primakov wrote. This time, according to Primakov, he doesn't have any such fuel - but the former prime minister also warns that one shouldn't expect the members of Saddam's inner circle to conspire against him and try to depose him.

Saddam is like Stalin, who was regarded with such awe and admiration by his inner circle that they remained unswervingly loyal to him even when he had their loved ones imprisoned. Primakov sees Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister and former foreign minister, as the Iraqi Vyacheslav Molotov (Stalin's prime minister and commissar of foreign affairs). Stalin arrested Molotov's wife, and Saddam has had Aziz's son arrested - but this did not make them any less worshipful.

Sooner or later

At the war councils in Washington, the disagreement between the bolder and the more hesitant essentially boils down to "sooner and faster" versus "later and slower." The compromise will apparently be "later and faster." The civilian echelon in the Pentagon, with the support of Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, was in favor of an immediate action and the amassing of forces in the course of the operation. Veterans of ground combat, especially from the U.S. Army and the Marines, were reluctant to move too hastily. The civilians, with the encouragement of the devotees of the military's air power, wanted to make things go more quickly - for instance, instead of waiting three months to transfer five divisions, to make do with the three divisions that would require just a month to be put in place.

The internal wrangling has caused the operation to be delayed by six months: Precise information about who said what and when will undoubtedly trickle out one day in the memoirs of the figures involved, including President Bush.

From Israel's perspective, the upshot is that the country can expect, at most, a night or two of tense anticipation, and not six weeks of being on alert. Night will be the key time, because the commanders of the missile launchers in western Iraq, if they are there at all, will be even more wary this time around than they were in 1991 of coming out of their hiding places during daylight hours, under the watchful eye of the American satellites and planes. And only one or two nights, because the launchers will not be able to survive any longer than that. These two nights, in which the schools will be empty of students and the operators of the Arrow missile batteries will be hunched over their computer keyboards, poised to punch the F2 button and intercept incoming missiles, are what the whole fuss is about.

Or maybe not, since there has been so much talk about the threat of biological and chemical weapons that it's hard to believe that two such renowned experts as Marcus Klingberg (biology) and Nahum Manbar (chemistry) have not yet been called upon to commentate on the war. The threat exists, but it is not directly related to the American operation in Iraq; the poison gas and the killer viruses could be smuggled into Israel in 1,001 other ways - at any moment. Should anyone decide to make good on this threat, they would certainly wish to obscure their fingerprints, though they may not ultimately be able to. If they fail to do so, they risk incurring a severe response, both militarily and politically.

For example, if the Palestinians were to be linked to the use of such weapons, which could also harm themselves and maybe even Jordanians and Egyptians (as the harmful agents are carried by the wind or in the water systems), they would lose all hope for a state of their own. Their unwillingness to see things play out this way will prove a more effective deterrent than attempts to defend against the unknown.

Like in Chechnya

The Monroe Doctrine, formulated 180 years ago, with its slogan, "America for the Americans," opposed European colonization or intervention on both the northern and southern American continents. Named for America's fifth president, it complemented the diplomatic doctrine of the first president, George Washington ("Europe for the Europeans" - meaning America should stay out of their wars). The division of labor between Bush and Sharon allots Iraq to the Americans and the territories and Lebanon to the Israelis. For Sharon and the defense establishment, the order of priorities is: Lebanon first, then Gaza and Iraq not at all - unless a very extreme scenario materializes.

In recent days, and without any prior coordination, IDF commanders in the various branches have all spoken in favor of a military initiative by Israel, to be conducted in tandem with the American campaign in Iraq, designed to eradicate the threat posed by Hezbollah's weapons. In their view, Israel should not have to endure a situation of prolonged exposure to the threat of thousands of missiles and rockets whose range covers the northern half of the country, when the fingers on the trigger belong to Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

According to these officers, a concentrated operation focused on Hezbollah is necessary - and not one that is a repeat of "Operation Accountability" or of "Operation Grapes of Wrath," in which the flight of the refugees (and the fighters) northward was damaging for Israel and allowed Hezbollah to recoup. The objective of a new operation, say its advocates, must be to free Israel and Lebanon from the military grip of Hezbollah. The aim should be the implementation of the final clause in the Taif agreement, which calls for the disarming of all the militias in Lebanon, restoration of full sovereignty to the Lebanese government and the installation of Lebanese army troops on the border with Israel.

An escalation in the north is practically a forgone conclusion. If Hezbollah does not open fire as a demonstration of Arab strength while the Americans are fighting the Iraqis, then someone in Israel will surely propose a preemptive strike, or a provocation of Hezbollah that would invite a first strike that in turn would invite a full-blown operation.

Even those who propound such an operation and who expect that the air force, the infantry brigades and other forces would carry it out successfully, are not complacent about it. Six-hundred Hezbollah fighters spread out in five sectors will no doubt prove to be a bitter enemy, "like the Chechen underground, or even tougher," say Israeli officers who are Lebanon veterans and have also fought in the territories during the past two years. A probable scenario, for the Iraq and post-Lebanon period, is the mobilization of reservists to serve as a stationary force in the West Bank, while the regular divisions head south to contend with the Hamas leadership and other targets in Gaza.

Even those who see a "window of opportunity" for such military actions are well aware that this window is situated in the wall of the White House and that the person who lives and works in that building can open and shut it as he pleases.

The need to help George Bush keep an eye on Sharon, lest he go too far in Lebanon, will push the Labor Party into the government - the party whose people (Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak) oversaw the operations of 1993 ("Accountability"), 1996 ("Grapes of Wrath") and 2000 (the withdrawal). Two days ago, even before Judge Mishael Cheshin issued his ruling barring Mofaz from running for the Knesset, Sharon's office was delighted to promote this possibility by implying that room could be made for Amram Mitzna at the Defense Ministry.