In private conversations, the former prime minister compares the expected war against Iraq to a corridor. If Israel gets down the corridor safely, he says, it will head out into the region. There will be a stable Middle East, with civil democracies, and a real chance for prosperity. But the corridor leading to the region could be narrower and darker than people tend to think. Since there's no way of knowing what Saddam Hussein managed to stockpile and how he'll behave when the moment of truth comes, the corridor we're heading down is dark and full of uncertainty. Despite the optimistic assessments of the security establishment, nobody can be sure that in the coming months there won't be a limited incident involving unconventional weaponry that would sear the consciousness and change the very circumstances of our existence.
One thing is clear: There won't be an apocalypse here, not now. Thanks to Menachem Begin and George Bush Sr., Saddam does not have apocalyptic capabilities. And another thing is clear: The likelihood Iraq will manage to harm Israel in a significant manner is not high. But when the possibility of a biological incident, no matter how minor, is even only 5 percent, that's significant. So, the name of the challenge now is not nuclear horror and not immediate existential threat. The name of the challenge is extreme uncertainty.
The Israeli establishment's complacency is based on two main arguments: that Saddam has only a tiny fraction of what he had in 1991, and that Israel and the U.S. are far better prepared than they were in 1991. These arguments are true but hollow. That's because the last Gulf War ended before it reached the stage where the new war against Iraq will begin - the direct assault on Saddam's regime. As a result, the lessons of 1991 are not appropriate for the one of 2002/3. Strategically, that war didn't really happen: It did not reach the critical point where a genuine threat on Israel was put to the test. On the other hand, the current circumstances make possible a limited strategic threat against Israel. That's even true if the Iraqi threat is much narrower than it was a decade ago. It is a more serious threat because this time it could really happen.
Three basic facts about Saddam Hussein should worry every Israeli: the fact that he is a serious dictator who has managed to survive for decades; the fact that this serious dictator has been thinking for a quarter of a century in terms of mass destruction; and the fact that in the last decade he paid astronomical sums to protect what he has been hiding in the field of weapons of mass destruction.
These three publicly known facts are more important than all the secret information about how many operable missiles are in western Iraq. And the combination of the three facts leads to an unequivocal conclusion: Israel has to prepare for the worst. Even if the likelihood of the worst-case scenario is very weak, it must serve as the national working assumption. A rational nation cannot do otherwise when faced with such a state of uncertainty.
But Israel is not behaving like a rational nation. Its security mechanisms might be conducting organized preparations, but the overall national framework is not doing enough to beat Saddam to the punch. It is not certain that everything that could have been done in the way of deterrence has been done. It is not certain the civil leadership has been properly prepared. There is no doubt that the social structures, economic and health, have not been prepared for a moment of supreme testing. There is no doubt that not all the leadership work has been done to prepare the public for the trauma it may undergo in case of a limited, but horrifying event.
An experienced Israeli strategist tries to say with a smile that the best thing would be for the prime minister to handle preparations for the unconventional threat with the same meticulousness he employs in establishing settlements or in recruiting new Likud members. But the question is not merely the issue of the prime minister. The question is the depth of the psychological repression. There's an impression that since as Israelis we have been living in impossible existential circumstances for a very long time, that repression has become an integral part of our lives. To function on a personal level, we repress the occupation and demographics, the water problem and the unconventional war threat. Over the years, this repression has become our very human response to the inhuman challenges with which we are surrounded. Up to a certain stage, the repression also gave us strength: It enabled us to create the illusion of normalcy in a fundamentally historically abnormal situation.
But now, on the eve of the coming war, Israeli repression has become an irresponsible phenomenon. A country that wants to live cannot allow itself the possibility that its rendezvous with reality will once again be the moment when the air raid sirens shatter the quiet.
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