Iraq might not be Israel's war, but worries are


JERUSALEM - Senior Israeli officials are constantly reminding the public, and perhaps themselves, that the United States' threat of military action against Iraq "is not Israel's war."

Despite official efforts to maintain a low profile on the subject, military and political leaders can't seem to shut up about it. The more they talk, the more stories appear in the Israeli press, annoying American officials concerned that talk about links between Israel and the United States risks inflaming the Arab world and potentially undermines support.

"The talk and the chatter, to the extent that it exists, needs to stop," warned Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

The newspaper Maariv reported this week that officials in Washington had decided to punish Israel by giving Prime Minister Ariel Sharon only hours of notice before an attack on Iraq, not several days as promised, to avoid leaks. Under a headline "Israeli leaders blab," the paper said American leaders had given up on Israel as "a lost cause" in terms of keeping secrets.

Forced to comment on the fracas, U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer denied the Israeli press reports. "The cooperation between our two countries is unbelievably good," he said. "There is no way that we are going to surprise our ally."

It is hardly shocking that Israelis are preoccupied by a potential war. Iraqi missiles hit Israel during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and people have a keen interest in knowing when another war might begin so they can be adequately prepared.

"People are very interested to know, because we are in the front line, even more than the American population is," said Zeev Schiff, defense correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, who noted that cooperation between Israel and the United States remains strong. The real problem, he said in an interview, is "the stupid declarations from our side."

The disjointed information coming from Israeli officials seems to add to the public's anxiety, despite the naming of a national spokesman. On the day an army official offers assurances that Iraq no longer targets Israel, another leaks intelligence reports of missile launchers spotted within striking distance.

And at virtually every public appearance, army generals predict the war's start. There are daily quotes that the battle will be joined "in a number of days." Last month, one army official warned, "Be ready for Saturday," prompting a panicked run to stores for supplies.

Schiff wrote yesterday in Haaretz that Israelis have every right to be "wound up and hungry for any bit of information. Our problem is not the leaks but the blathering and the statements that repeat themselves over and over, and above all, the hysterical headlines in the press."

Efforts by the United States to keep its military operations in Israel low-key have sometimes failed because Israeli officials have a duty to inform citizens how their army intends to keep them safe.

When 600 American troops arrived two months ago to oversee Patriot missile batteries designed to intercept incoming Scuds, it was virtually impossible to maintain secrecy. The Patriot batteries are hard to hide, as were the long convoys of military vehicles looping around Tel Aviv.

In a speech Monday to his Likud Party members in parliament, Sharon stressed again that Israel "is neither pressing to move up the campaign nor is it asking for its delay."

But he went on at length about the morality of striking at "tyrannical leaders," saying that the "awful tragedy that visited Europe in the Second World War might have been averted" had a head of state back then treated Germany the way the United States is now treating Iraq.

On Tuesday, Sharon told a group of businessmen: "The clouds of war in Iraq are darkening above our heads. We have taken all measures so that Israel can defend itself if attacked - a possibility that I estimate as low."

But, Sharon continued, "The Jewish people has the right and power to defend itself, and the government will not waive this right."

Israeli military strategists have said that the United States is doing everything it can to discourage Israel from retaliating if attacked. Israeli officials have been vague about what would draw them into the war, but have said the army would definitely respond if the country were hit with chemical weapons.

Sharon conveyed that message, according to the Israeli press, to CIA Director George J. Tenet during a brief, secret meeting last week, which included Kurtzer, Israel's CIA station chief and Gen. Charles Simpson, who heads the U.S. liaison team here.

Even if attacked, Israel must rely on U.S. intelligence to locate missile launchers in Iraq's western desert, and a military source told the newspaper Yediot Ahronot that Israel's response would be up to the United States.

"If the Americans decide that we will not act, we will not act," the security source told the newspaper. "Without specific information, we will not do anything."

And so the chatter continues, even as Sharon has authorized only four people to discuss the war: himself, along with the ministers of defense, foreign affairs and finance. That is, however, an increase from last month, when Israeli officials had limited the list to three.

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