Let Israel Defend Itself Against Saddam

by Ron Silver

Wall Street Journal, February 20, 1998

Here we go again. This week Israeli mothers and fathers are waiting in line to get their children fitted for gas masks. How do they explain this to their kids? Do they tell the truth, or do they make up some fib about the possibility of the air becoming "dirty," as one mother did?

Israel is a sovereign nation. Its first responsibility is to protect its people. But at the highest levels of the U.S. Government, some officials are concerned that if the U.S. hits Iraq hard, Israel will suffer Scud attacks as it did during the Gulf War. These officials' greatest worry seems to be that Israel will defend its citizens.

Israel is probably the only country that could be asked not to take action to prevent its towns and cities from being hit with missiles. Why are leading figures in our national security apparatus urging Israel to show "restraint" and not hit back at Iraq? Because the U.S. is allowing its Arab allies (some of which are Israel's erstwhile peace partners) to maintain Israel's status as a pariah nation.

Iraq continues to feed this campaign to delegitimize Israel. In a thinly veiled threat of further attacks in the event of war, Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, told the Los Angeles Times this week that Israel is part of a "conspiracy" to destroy his country.

When it comes to Iraq, the U.S. has a special responsibility to Israel. It was at the express request of the Bush administration that then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refrained from retaliating against Iraq's 1991 Scud attacks. The U.S. promised Israel that Iraq's missiles and weapons of mass destruction would be destroyed.

That promise went unfulfilled. Despite all the hoopla over American smart bombs, not a single Iraqi Scud launcher was destroyed by U.S. forces. Nor did the much-vaunted U.S. Patriot missiles placed in Israel do much good, despite misleading initial reports that they had shot down most of the Scuds.

Israel was not allowed to assist in the attack of Saddam in 1991 because its participation would have hurt the sensibilities of Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Syria. Saddam attacked Israel precisely because he knew it wasn't allowed to fight back.

Miraculously, no Israelis were killed by the blizzard of Scuds that fell on greater Tel Aviv, but Israel cannot count on being that lucky again. Nor can it be sure that Saddam won't employ some of his stockpile of ghastly toxins, such as anthrax, against the men, women, and children of Israel. That's why stores in Israel are experiencing a run of masking tape, which is used to create "sealed rooms" where Israelis hope to find safety against gas and biological attacks.

The only sure way of deterring this awful possibility is to allow the sovereign state of Israel to fulfill its primary responsibility to its population. The U.S. should publicly support such a posture. Americans should remembers that it was just this sort of Israeli duty to self-preservation that saved untold lives when Prime Minister Menachem Begin launched a precision air strike against an Iraqi nuclear plant in June 1981. Fortunately for the U.S. servicemen who defeated Iraq 10 years later, Israel didn't rely on American assurances of protection, instead acting on its own to set back Saddam's nuclear plans by at least a decade.

Too often in the past, U.S. leaders have forced Israel to pay the price for American strategic interests in the Middle East -- through concessions in the peace process as well as passivity in the face of Iraqi attacks. Some in our government have even blamed Israel's peace policies for their own inability to put together another anti-Iraq coalition. In fact, the real blow to the peace process from the current crisis is the fact that widespread Palestinian support for more Scud attacks on Tel Aviv is undermining the Israeli people's faith in the possibility of peace.

Understandably, this is an issue on which all Israelis are united. Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak told the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Edward Walker: "Israel is fully within its right to defend itself if attacked. This is something which we alone must decide, and no one can dictate to us on this matter."

America's leaders should think about those Israeli families standing in line for gas masks and the white lies they must tell to shield their children from the horrible reality. As the U.S. prepares to defend its interests, the least we can do is not get in the way of Israel's efforts to protect its own citizens.

Mr. Silver, an actor, is a member of the executive committee of the Committee for a Secure Peace and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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