Israel's security in the event of a U.S.-led war against Iraq is not only a concern for Israelis, but also for Jews around the world. A group of Israeli officials recently addressed the topic at a gathering of Jewish-Americans in Miami.
Longtime Miami Beach resident LeAnn Mayers nods vigorously when asked if she fears possible Iraqi attacks on Israel in the event of a second Gulf War.
"Oh, yes. I think, I hope, they [Israelis] are prepared, but how can you be prepared for germ warfare, chemical warfare? I think it is so sad," she said.
Ms. Mayers recalls that Iraq launched Scud missiles against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. She says there is no reason to think Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would refrain from similar attacks if war breaks out again.
Israel's consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas, points out the threat of attack is real. But he thinks the overall picture is not as grim as one might think.
"The Iraqi motivation and will to strike Israel has not diminished, and in fact in a situation where Saddam Hussein feels that the end is near, it may even increase," he said. "However, Iraq's capability has been significantly decreased since 1991. According to our best estimates, they have no more than six to eight missile launchers."
Israel's former ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, says his country has a great deal of experience in preparing and defending against airborne attacks. And, he adds that Israeli air defense systems have been strengthened with the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries provided by the United States. But, he notes, with possible war looming on the horizon, Israelis are worried.
"War is never pleasant, especially when it is close to home," he said. "And this comes in the wake of a lengthy national security and economic crisis [at home]. Israel is in the middle of all of this, and the mood is serious and somber."
Mr. Rabinovich says Israel is well-aware that the United States wants to keep his country out of a military conflict with Iraq and would press Israel to refrain from responding with force if attacked, just as it did in 1991. The former diplomat says such restraint is possible, but not easy.
"It is going to be very difficult, because we are talking about deterrence. And if you are attacked and you do not respond, you may invite another attack in the future," he said. "Israeli deterrence can not be perceived as relying on the United States. Israel has the military capacity to take care of itself, and if it restrains itself it will be in the service of a larger cause in this case."
Israeli General Consul Alon Pinkas listened with interest to President Bush's recent announcement of a new U.S. push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. He says the initiative can be seen, in part, as an attempt by the United States to defuse anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world in the event of war with Iraq. He says the Bush administration's "roadmap" for Middle East peace has significant implications for Israel.
"There is some pressure on the Bush administration to re-engage in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, not because of its destabilizing potential, but because it is the rallying issue for the entire Arab world," explained Mr. Pinkas. "We [Israelis] will not have a choice but perhaps to go along with a roadmap that is not consistent with the world outlook of the current government in Israel. It could bring down the [Israeli] government; it could also precipitate a coalition reshuffle [in Israeli politics]."
Mr. Pinkas says Israel would welcome Saddam Hussein's removal from power. But, he adds, Israel ultimately must focus on issues within its own territory, including demographic trends, if the country is to survive. Specifically, he notes that Jews are projected to become a minority within Israel's territorial boundaries during the next 10 years.
"Whether Saddam Hussein lives or dies is absolutely immaterial to the fact that Israel has to somehow disassociate [itself] from the Palestinians," said Mr. Pinkas. "It is impossible to maintain a Jewish democracy when Jews are 5.2 out of 9.5 million [people] in that territorial unit. And it is absolutely unthinkable [for Jews] to become a minority. That is not what we established a [Jewish] state for."
Consul General Pinkas says he hopes Saddam Hussein's removal from power would help promote peace in the Middle East. But he adds that Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the derailment of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and that his removal will not, by itself, ensure its success.