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1. The Israeli calculation

The prime minister and defense minister did not know ahead of time what Colin Powell was going to say when he presented the American case about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction to the UN Security Council two days ago. But the American administration has kept the Israeli defense establishment closely informed about its preparations to prevent a missile attack on Israel from western Iraq. The United States is zealously adhering to this distinction: not involving Israel in the planned attack on the Iraqi ruler, but doing its utmost to ensure that Israel is not harmed as a consequence of the American assault.

The U.S. is making a determined effort to convince the Israelis that it is taking every possible step to thwart Saddam Hussein's intentions of dragging Israel into the war. The Americans are aware that Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz do not approve of then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's decision to refrain from striking back after Iraqi Scuds fell on Israel during the Gulf War and believe that this restraint adversely affected Israel's deterrent capability. That's certainly the impression that the two gave the Bush administration.

In recent strategic talks in Washington with a team led by Dan Meridor, the Americans tried to extract a promise from their guests that Israel would refrain from responding to an Iraqi attack on its territory, but no such assurances were obtained. As it prepares its military moves, the U.S. administration is taking into account that Israel intends to respond forcefully to any Iraqi attack that inflicts substantial losses or damage. The response will be even more severe if Iraq uses unconventional weapons.

The prevailing assessment in the defense establishment is that the Iraqi ruler's ability to attack Israel is not what it was in 1991, but cannot be completely discounted. In the Gulf War, Saddam did not hesitate to launch missiles at Israel because he wanted to distract attention from his conquest of Kuwait. One can only imagine what he might do when his whole future is in peril.

A hint of this was evident in an interview that Saddam gave to British anti-war activist Tony Benn this week, in which he said that the root of the tension between the U.S. and Iraq lies in the establishment of Israel on the land of Palestine and in the Zionist influence on the American administration. For months, the defense establishment has been contemplating the possibility of an Iraqi attack on Israel, and focusing primarily on the dangerous link between the materials of mass destruction Saddam may have in his possession and his missile launching abilities.

The preparations are taking place on two levels: defense and response. Three layers of defense are supposed to protect Israel: an aerial umbrella (composed of approximately 120 planes) that the U.S. will spread above western Iraq; Arrow missiles and the Patriot defense systems in Israel; and the air force, which will be poised to intercept any manned or unmanned aircraft that manage to penetrate the other defenses.

If Iraq still manages somehow to strike Israel (by means of terrorism, perhaps), the magnitude of the response will be determined by the scope of the damage. Defense establishment officials explain that Israel will not automatically respond to any attack on it, but there is agreement that a strike by a missile armed with a chemical or biological warhead would change the rules of the game. A successful Iraqi strike with unconventional weapons would have a disastrous impact on public health, public morale, the country's economy, the environment and Israel's deterrent capability; thus, the response would be correspondingly severe.

At the same time, Israel will also have to consider the circumstances prevailing in Iraq when it wishes to carry out any reprisal action: Will Saddam Hussein still be in power? Will the American action permit the Israeli response? Nonetheless, defense officials said yesterday that while the aim of an American operation in Iraq will be to depose Saddam and then rehabilitate the country, this would not be a consideration for Israel if it has to retaliate for an unconventional weapons' attack.

2. A historic year

The Israeli defense establishment clearly wants the Americans to understand that there is no way that Israel will let a massive attack from Iraq go unanswered. These messages are meant to encourage Washington to take all necessary steps to keep Israel out of the war; in this, the American interest and the Israeli interest converge. The Bush administration has indicated its agreement on this point: The assault on Saddam will apparently begin in western Iraq, with the aim of neutralizing Iraq's ability to launch missiles at Israel. At the same time, the U.S. forces will try to attack the Iraqi ruler's regime at its weak points, in a way that will hamper his ability to control his army and bring to the fore all of its internal contradictions. The expectation is that swift American strikes on these targets will bring about the collapse of Saddam's rule.

Israel's aim of staying off the battlefield is being expressed in public statements by its leaders. Just a few months ago, the country was awash in warnings of a potential attack with unconventional weapons, but now the government's official spokespeople are emphasizing Israel's intent to stay out of the war and urging citizens to keep going about their normal lives.

A booklet with instructions about how to prepare for the possibility of war was distributed - after about a third of the original text was deleted by the defense minister because of the overly detailed, threatening description of the dangers that it listed. But a recommendation to inoculate the entire population against smallpox was rejected (at least for now), and defense officials have been making remarks that display little concern, almost contempt, about the possibility of Israel being hit with unconventional weapons (The chief of staff: "I don't understand the hysteria that the media is creating; the defense minister: I haven't gotten a gas mask kit").

Those roaming the corridors of power do not seem very worried by the approaching U.S attack on Iraq (the presumption in Jerusalem now is that the action will begin within about a month and that President Bush has passed the point of no return in terms of activating the war machine). Despite the risk that the American-Iraqi confrontation poses to Israel, most expectations here are that Israel will benefit in the end.

A senior officer said this week that this will be a "historic year" because the defeat of Saddam Hussein will affect the entire Middle East and lead to the expulsion of Yasser Arafat. This school of thought points to the similarities in the character and behavior of the Iraqi ruler and the Palestinian leader: Both are tyrants, both use terror to achieve their ends, both are treacherous aggressors and both suffer from delusions of grandeur. Just as Saddam did not correctly gauge his ability to maneuver in the international arena, so Arafat has spoiled his image in terms of world public opinion. Saddam's clumsy moves have led to his total isolation - even in the Arab world - to the embargo of his country, to devastation for his people and to American anger that is now being translated into war plans. Arafat followed a similar course to a conflict with Israel that now threatens his standing, if not his survival.

In Jerusalem, they hope that the results of the American attack on Iraq will generate circumstances that will make the neutralization of Arafat possible, even if he is not completely removed from the world stage. Intelligence assessments indicate that a coalition that longs to be rid of Arafat has coalesced, and that it includes leading Palestinian figures, Arab leaders, the American administration and some European heads of state. This lobby is not out in the open yet because Israel is currently paying the price of the American effort to enlist international support for its planned action in Iraq. In Jerusalem, however, they believe that this common interest will eventually come to the surface.

Interestingly, in anticipation of the "day after," the defense minister has asked for Ephraim Halevy's expert opinion on ways to end the violent conflict with the Palestinians and get back to the negotiating table. Shaul Mofaz evidently has come to the conclusion that the conflict cannot be resolved by force and is directing the National Security Council Chairman to come up with a formulation for the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.

3. Mitzna meets Sharon

The statement released by the Prime Minister's Bureau after Ariel Sharon's meeting with Amram Mitzna was carefully written: "In the meeting, which took place privately, the prime minister briefed Mr. Mitzna on the latest developments in the diplomatic and security arenas as well as on the understandings between Israel and the United States regarding the advancement of the peace process. In addition, Mr. Mitzna was informed of the open and secret contacts with Palestinians who want to talk peace."

Sharon sought to plant the idea that there should be nothing stopping the Labor Party from joining the next government: He and President Bush are in agreement about the outline for achieving an Israeli-Palestinian accord and wide-ranging dialogue is already taking place with Palestinian leaders with the aim of ending the conflict. Amram Mitzna, meanwhile, sought to convince his colleagues in Labor, as well as the entire public, that there is no basis for establishing a broad coalition. He talked about how rigid Sharon's positions were, including the prime minister's declared refusal to consider any settlement evacuations, including from the Gaza Strip.

Afterward, some in Sharon's circle tried to get the word out that Mitzna had not accurately described the positions that the prime minister presented at the meeting. They said that what Sharon really said was that, "at this stage," there is no reason to talk about the evacuation of settlements, and that the prime minister explained to his guest why each one of them is important. Mitzna responded yesterday by saying that his account of his conversation with the prime minister was accurate and that he had described the positions that Sharon presented, not any intentions that the prime minister may or may not have. "In such a conversation, there are statements and also impressions," said the Labor Party leader. And the unmistakable impression he got was that Sharon is unswerving in his positions and that no basis was created for coalition negotiations between the two parties.

The prime minister's media advisor declined to offer any clarifications of the positions that Sharon expressed at the meeting. "It was a private talk and we respect the discretion normally accorded to such meetings between the prime minister and the head of the opposition," explained Arnon Perlman, getting in a dig at Mitzna for revealing what he heard from the prime minister. Mitzna, somewhat discomfited, responded: "I briefed my colleagues at 4:30. They (the prime minister's people) gave a briefing an hour earlier. They're more expert at media spin than we are."

4. Building a ladder

Labor Party leaders think they see the handiwork of at least one Likud minister in the gathering of industrialists and business leaders who called on them this week to join a national emergency government. But knowing that someone from the prime minister's side was behind the effort doesn't make things any easier for Labor in terms of public opinion: It's hard for the party's leaders to portray the move as a cynical political maneuver on Sharon's part because they know that the public supports the formation of a unity government in any case.

In confronting this popular sentiment, which wants to see the country's leadership joining ranks, Labor leaders are starting to backtrack from some of their earlier pronouncements: Rather than ruling out any possibility of joining the Sharon government, they are now presenting conditions. Amram Mitzna said yesterday that if Sharon had expressed any readiness to evacuate the Gaza Strip within a year, there would have been something to talk about. He did not retract his fundamental refusal to join a Sharon government, but spoke instead about his feeling that "the distance between us is huge."

Avraham (Beiga) Shochat was more concrete: Labor would be ready to join a government headed by Sharon if it would quickly complete construction of the separation fence, remove illegal outposts, cut the budgets for the settlements and the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox], bring the Bush "road plan" up for the government's ratification and evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip.

This may be how the ladder upon which Sharon and Mitzna meet is built. The rung that appears impassable at the moment is the demand for the evacuation of settlements.

5. The sorcerer's apprentices

For now, Tommy Lapid enjoys the support of the other 14 members of the Shinui faction for the stances he has taken regarding coalition negotiations, but he could encounter some surprises: He does not have full authority over all the faction members and some of them do not accept all of his views.

For example, not all of the faction is comfortable with the distinction Lapid is making between Shas and United Torah Judaism. But reservations about this position are not yet being openly expressed because the things Lapid is saying are thought to be part of an attempt to explore how much maneuvering room Shinui has in the coalition negotiations. If and when push comes to shove, some members of the faction will refuse to sit in a coalition with the Ashkenazi Haredim just as they'll refuse to join a government that includes Shas.

So far, Lapid hasn't deviated blatantly from Shinui's promises to the voter, so no dissenting voices in his faction are being heard. The party put together a team that is currently formulating its positions for the coalition negotiations. If a coalition agreement is reached, it will be brought to the party's council for approval (this council proved its independence when it rejected Lapid's proposal to safeguard the places of all six of the party's MKs from the outgoing Knesset on its candidate list). At the moment, an agreement doesn't seem likely, since Lapid cannot compromise on the party's fundamental positions: drafting of yeshiva students and not sitting with Haredi coalition partners. This platform (which Lapid himself strove to formulate in a way that would be acceptable to the party council) made a decisive contribution to Shinui's dizzying success in the elections. Abandoning this platform would outrage at least some of the new MKs who made it to the Knesset because of it.