Text size

Cheney's visit is turning Israel into a player, even a star player, in the plot being hatched to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. In 1991, Papa Bush needed a coalition of Arab countries, both for access to their land and airspace, and for getting them to participate symbolically in the rescue of an Arab country whose sovereignty was being trampled with impunity. Israel's role back then was to sit quietly, without threatening, without attacking, without gloating, just making it clear that it wasn't buddy-buddy with Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Syria. Israel sat quietly, alright, but it was struck by 39 Scud missiles.

For Israelis, spoiled by hermetic skies in all our wars, it was not an easy experience. There we sat in our silly gas masks, listening to Brigadier General Nachman Shai advising us, in Hebrew, Russian and Amharic, to "drink some water." God knows where he found that gimmick. He must have watched movies where the first thing they do when people faint is give them water.

At the time, they talked a lot about chemical warheads, but it turned out they were only primitive projectiles packing 250 kilos of explosives (in Gaza, we dropped bombs weighing a ton without anyone getting killed). By the time they got to Israel, they were worn out and ready for the junk heap. The only casualties, apart from our wounded pride, were those who made the mistake of injecting themselves with the syringe of atropine in the gas mask kits.

This time, the United States doesn't need an Arab coalition - only support and a logistic base. In public, however, the Arab capitals are voicing their opposition to the attack. The leaders of these countries, all of them dictators, are not eager to jumpstart a precedent in which the United States topples regimes and bombs countries it dislikes. But this is not the Arabs' last word. The fact that the Palestinian initiative of the Saudi crown prince was born just around the time that the Cheney mission was announced may hint to a possible swap: Arab support in return for an imposed settlement in which Israel will withdraw to the 1967 borders. The alternative is a united Arab front against the attack on Iraq.

In either case, Israel may find itself drawn into the fray: as the object of an imposed settlement, the price for Arab support; or as a major player, together with Turkey, providing the Americans with a logistic base. During their visits to Washington, Sharon and Fuad rushed to offer any assistance that might be needed, making it clear that overthrowing Saddam was in Israel's strategic interest.

But one cannot talk about Israel being a player in this game without mentioning Israel as a potential Iraqi target. From the moment America's offensive against Iraq began to take shape, heads of the defense establishment have warned of lethal consequences for Israel. Emerging from his meeting with the U.S. secretary of defense, Fuad promptly announced that in the event of an attack on Iraq, Israel would be one of the first to suffer. "Israel is taking into account the possibility of chemical and biological warfare," he said.

In every public appearance or interview since then, Fuad has repeated this contention: "If Saddam is pushed into a corner, he'll hit us with whatever biological and chemical weapons he's got." Only military intelligence chief Amos Malka has held back a little. "There's a high probability that Saddam will want to involve us, but I wouldn't get the Israeli public uptight right away," he remarked. As if the Israeli public asks him if and when it's time to start feeling uptight. Israel has a long history of assessing national dangers years in advance - the water crisis, for example - and being unprepared when it actually happens. According to the experts, Saddam has a dozen mobile missile launchers with "dirty" warheads. No one can say for sure if he can or will dare to use them, but it is important for Israelis, who are not exactly sipping martinis at the moment, to know whether our leadership is just good for a scare or can be counted upon for an ounce of prevention.

So as not to get mixed up in a situation where we have to attack with you-know-what, it is important to reach a full understanding with the United States. We need more than five minutes' advance warning. We need state-of-the-art interceptors like the Patriot PAC-3. We need, say, a smallpox vaccine to immunize the entire population ahead of time. But above all, we need an aerial defense system that finds the missiles and destroys them on the ground - something that was not done during the Gulf War. If the minister of defense is right, a drink of water is not going to be enough.