TEL AVIV, Israel -- There is little likelihood that the Geneva talks will avoid war because President Bush badly misunderstands Saddam Hussein, a former head of Israeli intelligence said yesterday.
Mr. Bush's rhetoric has been "an insult . . . a slap in the face" to Mr. Hussein, who now will be loath to compromise, said Aharon Yariv, a reserve army general.
"Saddam Hussein takes it as an insult," he said. "Once you do it in public, Arab leaders are very sensitive. Arab prestige counts a lot."
His pessimism was reflected in the Israeli Cabinet yesterday. Foreign Minister David Levy said Mr. Hussein's latest statements were "in effect, a declaration of war."
State Radio said Mr. Levy informed the Cabinet that the United States and its allies were now seriously preparing for battle.
General Yariv's remarks were made at a news conference and in an interview afterward. He said it remained possible that negotiations might avoid war, but he said President Bush had not handled the situation adroitly.
"Why do you send [Secretary of State James] Baker to Geneva and say he is not going to negotiate?" he asked. "What's the point of going? Saddam Hussein takes that as an insult, so he responds in a very, very tough way."
General Yariv said entreaties should have been made in secret. The public belligerence by the U.S. president "must raise the hackles on Saddam Hussein's neck," he said.
"You have got these two people who do not understand each other too well," he said of Mr. Bush and Mr. Hussein. "That can lead to misunderstanding and war.
"You can hardly imagine two more different people."
Mr. Bush, he said, is a "product of classical Western democracy." Mr. Hussein "was brought up in the rough school of life and the skulduggery of the Middle East."
General Yariv is head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.