The price of Israeli restraint
The possibility of Israeli involvement can be analyzed on three different levels - prevention, settling accounts and exploiting an opportunity. In the fall of 2001, it was reasonable to assign a high probability to a preventive Israeli strike. Today, the chances of such a strike border on zero.
The United States Army's Central Command last week published the leaflets with which it has been bombarding Iraq for the last few weeks. The brochures, in Arabic and English, use propagandistic graphics reminiscent of the 1960s. This psychological warfare is aimed at deterring Iraqi soldiers from firing surface-to-air missiles or repairing the country's bombed communications infrastructure.
"Military fiber optic cables have been targeted for destruction. Repairing them places your life at risk. Military fiber optic cables are tools used by Saddam and his regime to suppress the Iraqi people," warns one leaflet. "Think about your family. Do what you must to survive," another leaflet advises the worried soldier, who is debating between his anti-aircraft guns and his wife and children.
Judging from the verbal contortions being heard in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, one could easily believe that similar leaflets had been dropped here, warning the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff not to dare intervene in the war. The issue is not new. It has been chewed over very thoroughly since it was first raised a few days after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, in light of the assessment that the Bush administration would first attack Al Qaida forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan and then move on to Saddam in the next phase.
But a year and a quarter later, the chances of Israeli involvement in the war - or at least on the Iraqi front - are continuing to shrink.
The possibility of Israeli involvement can be analyzed on three different levels - prevention, settling accounts and exploiting an opportunity. In the fall of 2001, it was reasonable to assign a high probability to a preventive Israeli strike against the missile infrastructure in western Iraq, if it were exposed at a time when U.S. forces were not yet ready to act. Today, the chances of such a strike border on zero: There are no missiles in western Iraq (as far as anyone knows); Israel has no pretext for a preemptive strike out of fear that Saddam will strike the first blow; and there is no reason to introduce the Israeli factor into a context in which it does not belong.
Another reason for employing the IDF in Iraq could be to "settle accounts" with Saddam - an old account, for the missile attacks in 1991 (which themselves were partially a settling of accounts by Saddam for Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor a decade earlier), or a new account, should Iraq respond to an American strike by attacking Israel. This is more likely than a preemptive strike, but still far from a certainty.
The commander of one of the IDF's front-line units, which in recent years has trained to conduct sorties far from home and is expected to participate if emergency plans are ever put into action, said last week that he considers the probability of Israeli involvement to be "less than 50-50."
If the test is one of results, the IDF's assessment is that Israel will not suffer any harm, or almost none. But if the test is one of intentions, Israeli involvement is possible even if an Iraqi attempt to strike the country - whether with missiles, planes, or any other type of weapon - fails. The decision will not be made in advance. It will depend on a many factors - whether the Iraqi warhead contained ordinary explosives or chemical or biological weapons; whether Israelis were injured or killed, and how many; whether the Arrow anti-missile missile succeeded in shooting down the incoming missiles.
On the question of settling accounts, disagreements can be expected both within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's war cabinet and within the top echelon of the General Staff - the chief of staff and his deputy, the commanders of the air force and the navy, and the heads of the intelligence, planning and operations directorates. One topic of discussion will certainly be the collapse of Israel's deterrent posture should it once again respond to a non-fatal attack with restraint. But in light of the forceful American demand for restraint, it seems likely that the moderates will trump the hawks.
But the condition for such restraint is liable to be a corresponding decision that will satisfy the hawks, who include Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Air Force Commander-in-Chief Major General Dan Halutz. It could be a decision to exploit the opportunity: not an opportunity in Iraq, and not an opportunity in the territories, but one in Lebanon - the removal of the threat of Hezbollah's rockets and missiles. America's payment for Israeli restraint in Iraq will apparently be its consent to the use of the Israel Air Force - and perhaps also other branches of the IDF - in Lebanon.