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PERSPECTIVES ON THE IRAQI CRISIS

A View From the Sealed Room

A special torment of Israeli life is never knowing whether your fears are real or self-induced.

November 15, 1998|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

JERUSALEM — This time, we're trying to ignore it, pretending that the American showdown with Iraq has nothing to do with us. We've been through this too often, we reassure one another, to take the threat seriously anymore. In February 1997, when the U.S. almost attacked Saddam Hussein, hysterical people crowded gas mask distribution centers in Tel Aviv as the media offered detailed descriptions about the varied effects on the human organism of biological and chemical weapons. But not now: We're not going to torment ourselves again.

For six weeks during the 1991 Gulf War, our lives revolved around the "sealed room," protected against Iraqi germs by plastic sheets on the windows and wet towels under the door. We ventured out of the house reluctantly, afraid to be caught in an air raid away from our sealed rooms. But even that prolonged ordeal turned out to be apocalyptic farce: In 39 Scud missile attacks on Israeli cities, only one person was killed by a direct hit. Far more Israelis died of heart attacks, of fear of Scuds.

So now we deliberately affirm our daily routines even as the army once again turns neighborhood schools into gas mask distribution centers, bizarrely known as "refreshing stations" where you trade in expired "protective kits," another calming euphemism that conjures a first-aid kit meant for household mishaps. We ignore army-sponsored TV commercials with the upbeat message that gas masks "are a part of life." We no longer crowd hardware stores, as we did during previous Gulf crises, to buy plastic sheets and penetration-proof tape with which to seal our windows.

But though we won't admit it, the question persists: What if this time it's real? What if, precisely because we're not panicking, Saddam decides to prove to the Arab world that he alone is capable of humbling the Zionists?

The periodic Gulf crises present us with the no-win choice of ignoring threats or allowing nightmare fantasies to subvert an always-tenuous Israeli stability.

Nor are our options any clearer on the policy level. How far should we go in accommodating American interests in its struggle against Saddam? During the Gulf War, the Bush administration sensibly demanded that Israel not retaliate against Scud attacks, to forestall defections among its anti-Saddam Arab allies. We complied, allowing the Arab world to perceive us as a nation that was losing its will to protect itself. Now American interests require that Israel not outrage Arab opinion by building the Har Homa neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and that too seems reasonable. But at what point does Israel begin losing the right to protect itself and determine its own national agenda? Are we subtly being transformed from an independent state into an appendage of U.S. policy?

One of the special torments of the Middle East is never knowing whether your fears are real or self-induced. For decades, most Israelis believed that a withdrawal from the West Bank that would leave the Jewish state eight miles wide at its most densely populated area and that would expose its international airport to potential Katyusha rocket attacks from the Samarian hills just beyond would threaten our survival. Now we are moving in precisely that direction, with a Likud government negotiating the terms.

Was our fear of a Palestinian state mere hysteria? Or are we insanely naive now to trust our security to the benign intentions of the Middle East?

Most Israelis reject both the religious right's despairing vision of a Jewish people fated to isolation and hatred and the secular left's utopian vision of a "new Middle East." For all those Israelis in the middle, the real debate isn't being argued between ideological hawks and doves but between competing voices of fear and hope within themselves. Each new Iraqi threat that ends in farce reinforces our ability to take another tentative step outside of fortress Israel, our collective "sealed room," even as we fear venturing too far away, where we can be caught without shelter from the ultimate threat.

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