Israelis confident Iraq could easily be repelled

January 07, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- Uri Rwimi, a 30-year-old barber, is unworried about Saddam Hussein's threats to attack Israel if war begins. With apologies for his English, he predicts what will happen:

"Is two days only. Bam! Bam! Bam! Saddam Hussein is finished."

Despite lurid doomsday threats from Iraq's leader, and a military matchup that on paper leaves Israel far outnumbered, Israelis remain supremely confident in the ability of their armed forces if the country is drawn into a gulf war.

So confident, in fact, that most here seem willing to wait for the first missile to fall on Israel before joining the fight. That concession to Americans reflects their certainty in the outcome of any fight, with or without U.S. help.

"We know what we can do. If we strike back, it will be over quickly and painfully," said one government official.

Israel's confidence in its military, bordering on swagger, is a central fact of life in this country. Their government is deadlocked, their economy is sick, they are running out of water and running over with immigrants, but Israelis are untroubled by doubts their armed forces will win in a war.

In a public opinion poll last April, a striking 95 percent said they had faith they were well-protected by the Israeli Defense Force. Only 3 percent had doubts.

In part this allegiance is because they are the military. When Jewish citizens turn 18, all men serve for three years, women for two. Men continue to serve in uniform for 30 to 45 days every year until they are 51, and may be called up for duty at any time.

In part, the confidence comes from history. This tiny country, surrounded by largely hostile neighbors, has weathered five wars since its birth in 1948. They have lost 17,000 dead in those wars, but Israel still survives.

The military image has lost some luster. In the 1956 war against Egypt and again in the 1967 "Six Day War," Israel's military successes were swift and stunning.

But Israel was caught unprepared for the attack by Egypt and Syria in the 1973 October War. Though Israel more than regained lost ground, casualties were heavy and the public recriminations in Israel conceded a moral victory to their Arab foes.

And Israel's 1982 Lebanon invasion and yearlong occupation of Beirut was a messy, controversial affair, pocked by terrorist attacks and the refugee-camps massacre in refugee camps.

"People are confident in the armed forces, but not necessarily the political use of them," said analyst Gerald Steinberg.

The army's reputation also has suffered by its unwelcome duty of quelling the Palestinian uprising. Instead of stories of heroism, the assignment has produced accounts of brutality. Army leaders are more comfortable with combat than riot patrol.

Most here believe that if a gulf war starts, Iraq would carry out its threat to attack Israel, a common target that in the past has unified feuding Arab countries.

In that case, "in numbers, we are really not in very good shape," said Zeev Eytan, a military specialist at the Jaffa Center for Military Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Iraq has a force of 1 million soldiers; Israel has about 150,000 in uniform now, and a maximum force of 600,000 with reserves. Iraq has almost twice as many tanks, three times as many artillery and about as many planes as Israel.

"This has always been so. Always outnumbered," said Mr. Eytan. "Of course, there is quality to be taken into account."

Nor does Israel have weapons significantly more modern. "We cannot rely across-the-board on technological superiority," said Mr. Eytan.

Because the Iraqi border is 250 miles away, Israelis assume the first fighting would be in the air, not on the ground. The air force is the country's pride and joy.

In the 1982 Lebanese invasion -- an otherwise dismal campaign -- the air force shone. Its bombing knocked out 17 of 19 missile batteries the first day. In the first week of fierce dogfights with Syrian jets, the Israelis shot down 86 planes and lost none.

"That kind of performance is very convincing," said Avner Yaniv, a strategic military expert at Haifa University.

In reliance on the air force, Israel has not had a large call-up of reserves for its army, despite the rhetoric from Iraq. President Hussein's threats to launch missiles at Tel Aviv, coupled with Iraq's chemical weapons, did prompt the government to issue gas masks.

Though officials acknowledge the missiles could not be intercepted, they downplay the threat. Few missiles would hit cities, and they would not be very damaging, they say.

"A missile landing here in Tel Aviv . . . is unpleasant, causes casualties, causes irritation. But it does not decide a conflict," said Mr. Eytan.

The message seems to have landed with the public.

"Maybe one or two missiles fall here, but that's not so much," shrugged David Cohen, 37, an economist in Jerusalem. He gestured to the ancient wall of the Old City. "In the Six Day War, the war was right there. We weren't afraid. Why should we be afraid now?"

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