Pumped Up Panic

In February 1998, when tension between Iraq and the United States resurfaced, and the rumblings of war were again heard in the region, the then head of Military Intelligence (and now Chief of Staff) Moshe Ya'alon reported to the cabinet on Saddam Hussein's ability to attack Israel. Some time thereafter, Ya'alon said that to his surprise, the cabinet meeting ended with a decision to give the Israel Defense Forces a budget of NIS 250 million to increase gas-mask production.

From the point of view of the head of MI five years ago, there was no direct Iraqi threat hovering over Israel's head, and there was no need for any special preparations, but the political echelon (head by Benjamin Netanyahu), which was feeling the squeeze from the panic gripping the public, decided to boost the country's defensive measures - and in doing so, it upped the fears, too.

If the top brass of the IDF were today to allow themselves to publicly express what they are saying behind closed doors, the public at large would learn that they believe there is, in fact, absolutely no danger of an Iraqi attack on Israel - not "small" nor "negligible" nor "tiny" (as the heads of the defense establishment have put it in recent public statements), but no danger at all, i.e., non-existent.

But the chief of staff and his colleagues cannot stick their necks out with opinions like that because they, too, are concerned about the possibility that perhaps, despite everything, there will be some kind of Iraqi attempt to strike at Israel, and they will be made to look like fools. They are behaving in this manner also because their posts require them to take every security precaution possible, even beyond the reasonable, in their desire to cover all angles, and because they do not dare to go against the general stream, which has caught up the political echelon as well.

The IDF's refined professional assessment that Israel is not at risk from an Iraqi attack is based on the following data and analyses: Saddam is basing his defense strategy on encampment in Baghdad. In recent weeks, he has withdrawn most of his forces from the western desert and has deployed them near the capital. He is not acting on the premise that his fate has been sealed; to the contrary, he assumes he will be able to survive the initial U.S. barrages and will manage to drag the American soldiers into a war of attrition inside Baghdad, causing them mass casualties and awakening anti-war movements in the U.S.

In any event, in the first stages of the campaign, Saddam will be wary of using weapons of mass destruction so as not to refute his claims that he has no such weapons. And, if and when the developments of the war cause him to come to the conclusion that he has nothing to lose, America's control of events in Iraq and the U.S.'s ability to disrupt Saddam's chain of command will be effective enough to prevent the Iraqi leader from using chemical or biological weapons.

The air of panic enveloping Israel in anticipation of the expected U.S. assault on Iraq is far removed from these assessments of the situation, even if one of the sources of the panic is the public's healthy doubt about the authorities' statements with regard to the efficacy of the defensive measures that have been put into place. The air of panic has been created and fired by elements with vested interests - the political echelon, whose sense of emergency serves its political moves (the effort to put together a government), and its expectations that the war will bring about a massive change in Israel's position; high-ranking officials, who are taking pains to cover their backs against any possible development; the media (for the most part), whose screaming reports on the expected threats and the (allegedly) required preparations increase demand for their wares; manufacturers of protective equipment; and others.

The results of Friday's debate in the Security Council on the reports from Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, and the statement by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that the U.S. is prepared to wait "weeks" to ascertain if Iraq has indeed met the requirements of Resolution 1441 will, in all likelihood, lower the level of panic in Israel. There is no real reason for it to rise again if and when the Americans do decide to attack Baghdad.