The Israel Card

January 18, 1991

Saddam Hussein, in mustering what was left of his air strike arsenal to attack Israel, is activating his threat to try to turn his rape of Kuwait into a general Middle East conflagration. It was always his trump card, one he flourished, and it forces excruciating decisions on the Jewish state.

The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations has stated that Israel will not respond at this point. Maybe so, maybe not. To do so could draw Jordan into the war on Iraq's side and split Syria, always a doubtful factor, away from the fragile international coalition arrayed against Iraq. Not to do so would contravene any nation's right to hit back if attacked -- a fundamental element of Israel's defense strategy against its hostile neighbors.

Just how delicate the situation is was reflected in the Israeli government's denial about whether any of the Scud missiles lobbed into the Tel Aviv-Haifa area contained nerve gas or other deadly chemicals. Any chemical warfare attack would leave Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's regime with little choice but to retaliate, even knowing this would fit in with Hussein's plotting. On the other hand, Israeli forebearance if it is hit only by conventional weapons could confound the dictator's plans -- provided U.S.-led forces take out what is left of Iraq's mobile missile capability, and quickly.

Saddam Hussein's playing of his Israel trump card -- something the United States hoped could be averted -- is part of an on-going war for the hearts and minds of Arab peoples. It is a battle in which he seeks to pit the poor masses against the oil rich and to rally Palestinians everywhere into thinking he is their champion despite past policies detrimental to their cause. Most Arab nations are waiting to see. Though they know Saddam Hussein faces military defeat, they want to determine if he emerges as a survivor hero of a lost war, as some Arab leaders have in the past.

The Iraqi attempt to paint U.S. actions in defense of Kuwait as anti-Muslim is dishonest. But it remains up to Washington to win the bulk of Arab and Islamic opinion to its side. The best way to do this would be to win the war without Israel's involvement. To win it without hatred, without ethnic animosity, without substantial loss of civilian life, without damage to Iraq's great ambiguities.

The United States needs to keep the high ground, morally as well as militarily. Much of this high ground, however, lies not in placating Arab extremism but in remaining a loyal, trusted and understanding ally of Israel.

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