Corridors of Power / Who Would Give the Go-ahead?

On the eve of the American assault on Iraq, it wasn't known whether President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had reached an understanding concerning the nature of the Israeli response in the event that Israel is attacked with nonconventional weapons.

1. How will Israel defend itself?

On the eve of the American assault on Iraq, it wasn't known whether President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had reached an understanding concerning the nature of the Israeli response in the event that Israel is attacked with nonconventional weapons. In the weeks leading up to the war, the administration in Washington tried to extract a commitment from Israel to refrain from a military response in the event of an attack with weapons of mass destruction, but Israel refused to give any such assurances. The United States may have figured that if Iraq had the audacity to launch chemical or biological weapons at Israel - which would cause significant casualties and environmental damage - Israel would instinctively desire to punish the attacker so severely that the consequences would be seared for generations into the consciousness of the nations of the region and the entire world. But, as far as is known, Israel has not said explicitly what it would do or just what kind of retaliatory strike it would inflict on the Iraqi regime.

Vagueness surrounding the possibility of using nonconventional weapons has been a guideline of Israeli policy for 50 years. Since the days of David Ben-Gurion, prime ministers in Jerusalem have been careful to nurture Israel's image as a nation that ostensibly has the option of nonconventional weapons at its disposal, while never making any explicit declaration about it. This approach was applied not only to the nuclear option, which, according to publications abroad, Israel indeed has, but also to other types of nonconventional weapons.

In the Gulf War 12 years ago, when Saddam Hussein announced that it would be the "mother of all wars" and threatened to attack Israel with chemical and biological weapons, then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir warned that anyone who attacked Israel was inviting "major disaster" and would pay "an awful and terrible price." Ariel Sharon's remarks this week were much more muted: "Israel will know how to defend itself," he declared. This was not a random choice of words, but rather the product of a whole doctrine that has been developed and refined over the years.

A small group of senior defense establishment officials (numbering less than 10) is concerned with determining the Israeli position vis-a-vis the threat of nonconventional weapons. Its recommendations are presented to the prime minister and are also discussed by a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. As part of the analysis process, "war games" are occasionally conducted with the participation of the professional echelon and a representative of the prime minister. Reportedly, the positions that Sharon has presented at discussions on these matters have so far been responsible and restrained. Still, on more than one occasion, Sharon has reacted in the heat of anger to (conventional) terror attacks that caused heavy casualties and been inclined to approve severe reprisal actions as a result.

At the time of this writing (yesterday morning), no forum of ministers had met to determine the guidelines for the Israeli response should the country come under attack with biological or chemical weapons from Iraq, or even to clarify the decision-making procedure that would be followed in such a scenario. At the cabinet meeting two days ago, Sharon noted that two ministers (one was Tommy Lapid) had asked him to convene a meeting on this issue and he promised to do so. The government plenum was content to receive reports from the defense authorities about their preparations for the war in Iraq. The ministers left the cabinet session with the feeling that the IDF is well able to track activities in western Iraq and that this area is now devoid of missile launchers and operating airfields. They concluded that the only way left for Iraq to attack Israel with chemical or biological weapons is to try to deliver them by plane.

2. Who will make the decisions?

Yesterday, the composition of the political echelon that would make decisions in the event that Israel is attacked with nonconventional weapons was not yet clear. Presumably, it would be the security cabinet or a group of ministers from that cabinet. While the professional echelon (from the prime minister's office and the defense establishment) that deals with this issue is experienced and well-versed in the matter, the present political echelon is not as familiar with it. In particular, there is the risk that the prime minister will have an overly dominant influence on the decision-making process in this area, and that no minister will be able to provide a serious counterweight to him.

Sharon is the most veteran and experienced member of the government. As prime minister (and during his time at the Defense Ministry), he has been made aware of the complex considerations that must go into decision-making on a response to the use of nonconventional weapons against Israel. During his tenure as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was also familiarized with this delicate issue. The same is true, to a lesser degree, of the current defense minister, Shaul Mofaz (primarily from his tenure as chief of staff) and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (from his experience as deputy defense minister). The other members of the security cabinet are not familiar with the intricacies of the subject. Paradoxically, in the Knesset - as opposed to the coalition - there are a number of members who have closely studied the matter: Shimon Peres, Ephraim Sneh, Ran Cohen, Yossi Sarid and, to a certain extent, Matan Vilnai. Likud MK Uzi Landau is also an expert on the subject, but he is not a member of the security cabinet.

The upshot is that because of the composition of the present security cabinet, and because of the fact that this is a brand-new government that has an aggressive military temperament and whose moderating element, the Shinui ministers, are new on the job, the desired balance might be lacking if and when this forum is called upon to determine the response to a chemical or biological attack on Israel.

The questions that will come up in such a debate will include: Should Israel respond or should it leave the response to the American military? If the response is poised to occur after Saddam Hussein has been expelled, should it still be carried out (and hurt the Iraqi people) or should Israel refrain from retaliating (and risk harming its deterrent capability)? And what type of weaponry should be used in the Israeli response: Should the attack be answered in kind (and thus demonstrate Israel's absolute refusal to absorb an attack with weapons of mass destruction), or should Israel refrain from using nonconventional weapons (in order to avoid joining the club of rogue nations and thereby ensure the West's continuing acquiescence in Israel's tacit possession of the nuclear option)? Should Israel respond, and how should it respond, when the American and British armies are still operating in Iraq?

These are just a few of the considerations that the political echelon will have to take into account. There are other factors involved in the decision-making process that relate to the strength of Israel's image, its political standing, its relations with its neighbors and adversaries, as well as with its few friends in the world. The concern with these questions might seem superfluous given the assessments that an Iraqi attack on Israel is highly improbable (the chance of it happening is just "1 percent," Sharon told the cabinet), but it is certainly relevant given the fact that the other night, Israelis were told to open their gas mask kits and make sure to take them along everywhere.

3. The day after the war

At the cabinet meeting two days ago, Ariel Sharon sought to situate Israel as no more than an observer of the dramatic and violent scenario about to unfold in Iraq. In the presence of the television cameras, he told the ministers that "This is not a war that we are involved in, but we naturally recognize the great danger that exists when a nation like Iraq, with the leadership that it has and with its weapons of mass destruction, is involved in terror." Sharon added that Israel "definitely sees the supreme importance of the war on local, regional and international terror and that we have very deep admiration for the United States and its president, George Bush, who are waging the battle against world terror, and we hope that the campaign will come to a successful conclusion." Sharon's comments were in part due to American requests that Israel tone down its obvious enthusiasm for the impending assault on Iraq.

The government really has been eagerly anticipating the American operation, and has pinned big hopes on it. On the eve of the assault, senior ministers were still predicting that it would presage a positive turning point in the entire Middle East that would help Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians and increase the Arab world's readiness to accept Israel's existence. One minister asserted that the U.S. war on Iraq would bring the whole Middle East under American influence, which would help to pave the way for a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Shinui leader Tommy Lapid saw the American-Iraqi confrontation as a manifestation of the struggle of Western civilization against the concepts of fundamentalist Islam, but he expressed doubt about the Americans' ability to stabilize an acceptable regime in Iraq once the fire dies down. He believes that America's and Britain's present disillusionment with the idea that it is possible to get along with radical Islamic states is similar to those two countries' belated recognition of Hitler's real intentions on the eve of World War II: Just as, in the 1930s, the Jews of the world warned about Nazism's dangerous potential and the world kept silent - Israel's warnings about the dangers of Arab terror fell on deaf ears before the events of September 11, 2001. Lapid isn't the only one making associations with the Holocaust. After the Wednesday cabinet session, Silvan Shalom remarked that Israel wasn't established so that it could be wiped out with nonconventional weapons.

For some time now, the defense establishment has been addressing the question of what will happen the day after the war. The assumption is that American energy will be redirected at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the administration will make a serious attempt to implement the "road map." The IDF will recommend to the government that it make Israel's willingness to recognize a Palestinian state (including in the context of an interim accord) conditional upon a declaration by the Palestinian Authority of its recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

As negotiations on a final status agreement approach, the general staff (at least, as the prevailing mood there now indicates) will recommend that the Palestinians be clearly made to understand that there will not be a withdrawal to the 1967 lines and that no accord will be reached unless they concede the demand for the right of return within Israel's borders. The IDF also expects to be able to coordinate positions with the Bush administration in terms of battling the terror instigated by Iran and Hezbollah, and in addressing the protection that Damascus provides for the headquarters of the Palestinian terror organizations.

4. Next target: Iran

A few months ago, Jerusalem learned that the Argentine government had identified the culprits behind the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, in which 29 people were killed, and the July 1994 bombing of the city's Jewish community center, in which 85 were killed. There was worry in Israel that the Argentine authorities might not permit their findings to be publicized, but it wasn't so: The report stated that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the two bombings, and Argentina even issued international arrest warrants for four Iranian diplomats suspected of involvement in the incidents. Meanwhile, the Mossad completed its own eight-and-a-half-year investigation, which was presented to President Moshe Katzav this week and summarized by Ze'ev Schiff in Tuesday's edition of Haaretz.

The picture that emerges from the report is enraging: The Iranian leadership, including then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani and the country's supreme spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, initiated the attacks on the Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires, enlisted Hezbollah suicide bombers for this purpose, and exploited the embassy system at its disposal in South America in order to put the plan into action. It did this out of religious-ideological, not to say anti-Semitic, motives. Israel and Iran have no quarrel over borders or other existential questions, though they do have an outstanding financial dispute (over unpaid oil deliveries, dating from the time of the Shah's overthrow) and there is some lingering resentment stemming from the IDFs' 1992 killing of Hezbollah secretary general Sheikh Mossawi. Nevertheless, the Iranian leadership did not hesitate to harness its resources and its diplomatic infrastructure to carry out savage terror attacks against Israel and against Jews.

According to information possessed by Jerusalem, Iran is currently involved in subversive activity against King Abdullah of Jordan and against Israel. It is conducting this activity via Hezbollah in Lebanon (with Syrian president Bashar Assad being the connecting link) and via agents in the PA and among Israeli Arabs. Israel believes that Iran played a key role in torpedoing the negotiations on an accord with Syria that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres conducted in 1995 and 1996. Israel also knows that Iran is developing nonconventional weapons. The war on terror and on weapons of mass destruction is the banner under which President Bush is going to war in Iraq. Then why is he passing over Iran when the smoking gun is there for all to see?

After the war in Iraq, Israel will try to convince the U.S. to direct its war on terror at Iran, Damascus and Beirut. Senior defense establishment officials say that initial contacts in this direction have already been made in recent months, and that there is a good chance that America will be swayed by the Israeli argument.