Jerusalem — In the wake of this week’s agreement between the United Nations and Iraq, attention here turned to the threat posed by other countries in the Middle East with nonconventional weapons.
In addition to Iraq, “Iran, Syria, Egypt and Libya are all developing chemical and biological weapons at a rapid rate,” said Dr. Dany Shoham, a military expert at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Affairs.
“Iran is evolving in the nuclear field as well, and it’s said to be increasing its efforts with the help of the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, among others,” he said.
Whereas Iraq is being carefully monitored, Shoham said, “There is only limited scrutiny of Iran. What people don’t realize is that Iran and Iraq are more or less balanced in the chemical and biological spheres. Both have an inventory of chemical and biological weaponry, and both have the offensive capability to use them.”
Shoham’s comments came as Israelis greeted the agreement with equal doses of relief and skepticism. The mood in the country lightened considerably on Monday, after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that Iraq will provide unlimited access to weapons inspectors.
The fear that prompted 150,000 citizens and visitors to exchange or purchase gas masks on Sunday was all but absent 24 hours later, when just a few thousand people flocked to distribution centers.
“On Sunday it was incredibly pressured, but since then there have been almost no lines,” said a young woman soldier at a Jerusalem distribution site late Tuesday afternoon. “Things have calmed down, at least for the time being.”
Although the agreement seemed to remove the imminent threat of war, neither the Israeli government nor ordinary citizens put much stock in Saddam Hussein’s promises.
The few people replacing their masks at the ORT School here said they expected to need their masks later, if not sooner.
“In the Middle East, agreements mean nothing,” said Eli Rosenthal, a geologist in his 50s. “Americans don’t understand that it’s a totally different mentality here. There are no rules of the game.
“Saddam Hussein will pull this all over again, maybe in a month, maybe in three months, maybe in a year.”
Such thinking was echoed by Professor Gerald Steinberg, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Center for Conflict Resolution.
“Unless there’s a real effort to halt Saddam’s efforts to stockpile weapons of mass destruction, the problem isn’t solved,” he said. “The longer the rest of the world waits, the greater the threat to Israel.
“If in fact the inspectors have unfettered access [to Iraq’s sites], it will send an important message to Iran and Syria. If Iraq gets away with it, it will convince Iran and Syria that they can get away with it, too. If anything, they will accelerate their preparations.”
The government, too, remained on alert, urging all citizens to replace outdated masks and vials of atropine, an antidote to nerve gas. Following the reduction of tensions, however, military and health officials decided to store rather than distribute a hastily assembled stock of antibiotics to be used in the event of a biological weapons attack.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected any suggestion that the Iraqi agreement will put an end to the threat of nonconventional weapons. On Monday he told the Knesset that “we are living in a ‘missile Middle East,’ and it obliges us to be constantly prepared on the home front.”
“This is an ongoing threat and we cannot be complacent,” he said. “Therefore a percentage of the gross national product will have to go on a permanent basis toward defending the home front.”
Security preparations related to the Iraqi crisis totaled $125 million, a sum that elicited loud condemnation from opposition parties in the government.
Netanyahu, who has been warning of Iran’s weapons capability for several months, stressed that disarming Iraq is barely half the battle.
Referring to Iraq, Iran and Syria, he said, “There are at least three countries in the region which have long-range missiles with nonconventional warheads, and we must be prepared. This is the reality we have to cope with — not one we created but one we have to live with.”
Netanyahu will also have to live with the criticism against his government’s handling of the war that never was, which commenced, predictably, as soon as Kofi Annan announced that he had an agreement.
The thrust of the criticism against the government — specifically Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai — was that it had been overly cautious in the face of a minuscule threat.
The three weeks leading up to the all-clear sign had not been a happy time. Hundreds of thousands of people had waited in line for hours, sometimes even days, to get updated gas masks. Hardware stores had been swamped with crowds buying nylon sheeting and masking tape for their sealed rooms. Hotels in Eilat, at the southern tip of the country, were overbooked with Israelis planning to get out of Saddam’s line of fire. Flights leaving for Europe were likewise jammed.
Government agencies had sat and discussed how to evacuate cities in the event that anthrax-loaded missiles exploded in their midst. Mourning notices for the dead were printed with blanks left for the names in case they had to be filled in. Tens of thousands of public-sector employees had devoted their time almost exclusively to emergency preparations. The overall cost to the taxpayer came to about $100 million.
In the end, all the tension and frantic effort seemed to have been for nothing. Israelis were embarrassed at how the nation had behaved.
The blame, naturally, came mainly from the Labor Party-led opposition and the media. Labor accused the government of “defeatism, uncertainty, startling inefficiency and lack of credibility throughout the crisis with Iraq.”
But Netanyahu, explaining his policy in news conferences and on talk shows, said firmly that if he had to do it all over again, he would take the exact same approach. “Our responsibility was to provide maximum protection for every citizen, and that’s what we did,” he said.
The government’s information campaign was widely criticized for sending a double message: On the one hand, the threat of a missile attack was negligible; on the other hand, people should make sure to have their gas masks, nylon and tape on hand. One poll found that 69 percent of Israelis felt the information campaign had been “confusing and contradictory.”
Netanyahu explained that there had been an inevitable “duality” to the advice given the public. “The reality was complex, so the message was complex,” he said.
As is the situation now with Saddam Hussein, even with a UN-brokered agreement.
Bar-Ilan’s Shoham expressed doubt that this latest showdown with Iraq will stop Saddam Hussein in the long term. Since the 1991 gulf war, he said, “There have been variations and fluctuations [in the security situation]. This agreement appears to be promising, but essentially it’s just another fluctuation, a part of a continuing cycle.”
Despite the abundance of so-called weapons of mass destruction in the region, Shoham said, “The fear of retaliation has been a major deterrent.”
So Israelis are hoping.
“This agreement is only a piece of paper and it’s not worth anything,” said Uzi Saleh, a 22-year-old fruit vendor. “The fact that Israel is strong and supported by America is the only thing keeping the peace.”
Some, however, are pinning their hopes on a higher authority. In the process of replacing her family’s gas masks, one mother reassured her young daughter, “I’ll protect you, and Israel will protect us, and God will protect Israel. Yehiyeh Be’seder, everything will be fine.”
Israel correspondent Larry Derfner contributed to this report.