Back To The Brink

Back To The Brink

Jerusalem — Yossi Oren says he isn’t worried that Iraq will attack Israel with conventional, biological or chemical weapons.

“The situation is a lot better now than it was seven years ago,” asserts the 43-year-old Jerusalemite, referring to the 1991 Gulf War. During that six-week battle, Iraq lobbed 39 Scud missiles at Israel.

“Today,” Oren continues, “Israel has more sophisticated tools to destroy missiles. And anyway, I don’t think any Scuds will fall.”

So why is he waiting on line to replace his gas mask at one of Jerusalem’s crowded distribution centers? Looking a little sheepish, he replies, “I just want to be sure my gas mask is up-to-date. If Saddam is pushed to the wall, he could strike. You can’t be 100 percent certain of anything these days.”

This conversation neatly sums up the collective mood in Israel in the wake of assessments that Iraq has sufficient biological weapons like anthrax and botulism toxin to kill hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Israelis.

Despite showing no outward signs of panic — people continue to shop, dine out and go to the movies — the public is clearly preoccupied with events in Iraq. And now the government, at first slow to recognize the public’s anxiety, has responded by outlining its preparations for a possible attack even as it tried to calm jitters over the crisis.

Developments in Baghdad now top the evening news, with medical experts detailing the effects of biological and chemical warfare. In school, teachers tell their students as much as they think they can handle, often comparing Saddam Hussein to Haman of the Purim story.

Adopting a “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” attitude, in recent days thousands of Israelis have flocked to local gas-mask distribution warehouses to exchange old masks. In ordinary times, the warehouses assist a few hundred people each week. Should a war become imminent, the demand will be far greater: Only then is the army expected to issue masks to visiting students, tourists and the country’s 100,000 to 200,000 foreign workers (see accompanying story).

Although Israelis have known for some months that a standoff between the United States and Iraq was possible, it was not until Richard Butler, the chief UN weapons inspector, declared last week that Iraq has enough biological agents “to blow away Tel Aviv” that citizens became noticeably anxious.

Butler’s remarks angered many government officials, especially in Tel Aviv.

“What Butler said was irresponsible and contributed nothing to Israelis’ feelings of safety,” Meir Doron, director general of Tel Aviv, told The Jewish Week. “We could have done without this.”

Despite assurances by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Sunday that a military confrontation could take “weeks” rather than days, a fact that would give Israel more time to prepare for war, the majority of Israelis remained concerned this week.

A front-page opinion poll in Monday’s Yediot Achronot newspaper revealed that 53 percent of those surveyed feel “unprotected” against the threat of Iraqi missiles. The kind of missile was not specified.

The poll also showed that 52 percent of Israelis believe that Iraq will fire missiles at Israel, and that 63 percent believe Israel would retaliate. The United States reportedly has urged Israel to stay out of any fighting, as it did in 1991.

In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, the army deployed four batteries of Patriot anti-ballistic missiles near Dimona, in the Negev, a move that heightened the sense of security for some and merely frightened others.

The same could be said about a recent newspaper report declaring that the government had asked the United States for enough anti-anthrax serum to inoculate the Israeli public. Following a cabinet meeting hastily convened after the press leak, the government announced that it will hold off on mass inoculations, at least for the time being.

The government’s attempts originally to downplay the Iraqi situation, ostensibly to ward off panic, seemed to have had the opposite effect, according to psychologist Rachel Levy-Schiff, a professor at Bar-Ilan University.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Levy-Schiff said that “uncertainty breeds anxiety, and the more information you keep from the public the more anxious it becomes. It is a patronizing policy to think that the more the public knows, the more scared it will become. It’s like doctors who don’t tell the truth to the patient.”

In response to such criticisms, which were expressed by Knesset members and in newspaper editorials, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the government would immediately launch an “information campaign” to better inform the public on how best to protect themselves.

With thousands of Israelis thronging gas mask distribution centers, the finance ministry asked the Knesset to budget an extra $69 million for gas masks and other emergency supplies, a ministry spokesman said Tuesday.

Some hospitals conducted emergency exercises and pharmaceutical manufacturers worked around the clock to produce antibiotics to counter the effects of biological weapons, Israel radio reported.

At the Jerusalem gas mask center — one of only three serving a city of 600,000 — the 100-plus people waiting in line greet the prime minister’s promise to provide more details with either relief or skepticism.

“The government insists that it deployed Patriot missiles launchers as part of a routine military exercise. Are we really expected to believe that?” asks Sarah, a secretary. “If the politicians can’t be honest about this, why should we believe anything they say?”

Dan, an engineer, directs his anger toward President Bill Clinton. “If Clinton wasn’t trying to deflect attention away from the Monica Lewinsky affair, I doubt we’d be in this mess. The Iraqis have been stalling [the UN weapons inspectors] for months. Why give them an ultimatum now?”

Others, like Maya, the mother of a month-old daughter, are relieved by Netanyahu’s assurances. Waiting to receive the plastic-covered bassinet she prays she’ll never have to unpack, she says, “I trust the government to see us through this. If I didn’t trust someone I’d go crazy.”

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