FOR SEVEN days, I have been talking with a full range of top-rank Israeli civilian and military leaders. This is an attempt to distill the essence of what they said about two war-or-peace crises central to this country's existence.
One is relatively new -- the situation in the Persian Gulf. The other has dominated life in the Middle East for almost a half-century and isat least as important and dangerous as ever -- the struggle between Israel and those Arab nations that in heart and action still challenge Israel's existence among them.
Since I wanted as much candor as possible, the understanding was that the Israeli leaders would not be quoted by name. I did not attempt to get a "consensus" from men of different responsibilities and duties, but I think most of them would agree with most of what follows.
On Saddam Hussein: if the United States and its Western allies want to keep the Arab Middle East, its oil riches and its political destiny out of the hands of Saddam Hussein it will have to fight him, now or later.
The Israelis think he is strong but beatable now, but will be stronger later. Examining the economic planning of Iraq known to them and the profile of his entire political life, they believe he will keep using the oil billions of the future for two military objectives: development of his chemical weapons and the achievement of nuclear weapon power.
The major concern is his approaching ability to parcel out nuclear weapons among extremist allies, which would make international supervision an evil joke. The estimate for this is three to five years.
jTC This is a long way from saying that the Israelis "want" war. As a matter of fact, a few days in Israel would convince anybody but a fool or an incurable Israel-hater that the last thing in the world that this country "wants" is war. The whole picture of an Israel macho-mad for war in the gulf or anyplace else becomes an absurdity. It would be comical if it were not so often painted with ugly motivation.
This country has lived through one war after another with Arab nations, who lost everything but their hatred. The U.S. likes to pretend Israel has no role in the Persian Gulf crisis, but Israelis are entirely intelligent enough to know that in case of a gulf war they would have to expect an Iraqi attack on Israel.
The only thing that could prevent it is Saddam Hussein's understanding of Israel's ability and readiness to retaliate with enormous power. They remind him of this fact in a variety of ways without having to send their foreign minister to Baghdad.
But still they know he may not go down without trying to change the war into an Arab crusade against Israel. They are not trying to push the United States into a war, which they could never do. In any case, that is now the full-time pursuit of Washington's new allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and Syria, which have at least as much to fear from Saddam Hussein as does Israel. But Israelis add up the cost of fighting now or fighting later, and they come to their own conclusions -- without any pleasure either way.
Some of the most informed men with whom I talked have strong professional respect for the maneuvering talents of both Saddam Hussein and George Bush. They do not expect the Iraqi to collapse in terror when Secretary of State James Baker looks him straight in the eye.
They think that instead he will begin unwrapping his "compromise" proposal under which he would withdraw from most of Kuwait -- except for this oilfield and that island.
They do not know what Bush will do after the pressures mount on him to accept. But they think Bush knows that air attacks in strength could cripple Iraq and lessen -- although not eliminate -- the need and cost for ground combat.
On the Israel-Arab confrontation, they know a one-word answer: Sadat. Anwar el-Sadat moved for peace between Israel and Egypt and the Israelis rushed toward it, willing to pay the price -- the land of Sinai, so dear to both nations.
They do not see another Sadat now. But they think that whatever happens in the gulf, the monarchies and despotisms will eventually fall apart. Fanatic fundamentalism may be the major result. But perhaps one day change in the Arab world will bring forward another leader ready to risk peace. Until then, Israel must swim in hostile seas.
In the seven days of talk, there was not a moment of bluster, drama or pretense. There seemed too much at stake for anything but calm.