Saddam and the Petunias


JAFFA—Do you think CNN would want to rent my roof? I read in the newspaper that they’re looking for a roof with a good vantage point for filming incoming Iraqi Scuds.

My place would be perfect. In fact, my house is only a block from Tel Zevel, Garbage Hill, so named because that’s where people used to dump their trash. The Israeli military positioned Patriot missiles there the last time we had an Iraqi scare, so obviously we expect the Scuds to pass right overhead.

From a security point of view, it would be nice to have CNN on the roof. The Iraqis aren’t dumb. They would never target CNN or risk interrupting the broadcast of their “glorious” deeds by aiming a Scud too close. Only Israelis are stupid enough to shoot at journalists.

There is one problem. I just put in over 100 petunias in the garden up there and you know how cameramen stomp all over everything to get that “perfect shot.”

I guess I won’t offer CNN the roof. I’m more worried about the petunias than I am about the Scuds.

Gosh, there sure is a lot of anxiety in Israel these days and a lot of it is over Iraq. A friend of mine, a shrink, says her business is booming and tranquilizer sales are skyrocketing throughout the country. I also heard that sales are brisk for those machines that protect your bomb shelter (we all have one, by law) from biological weapons and poison gases. Otherwise, just about every other business in the country is skidding downhill fast.

“People can’t sleep,” said my friend. “My patients tell me they feel as if they were in Europe in the 1930s, that kind of fear and insecurity. People with kids in the army or teenagers are the most anxiety-ridden. And kids don’t laugh anymore; you see them on the street looking so somber.

“Then, there’s the problem of elderly parents getting Holocaust flashbacks,” she said. “Many think it is the end.”

In contrast, many Israelis have become exuberantly militant since the crisis began. Thousands of young professionals have abandoned jobs and family to rejoin their reserve army units without a qualm.

So what about Iraq? Is it such a big menace to Israel?

Actually, Iraq has never been exactly friendly to us. I won’t go back to the days of the Babylonian exile since I wasn’t there, but 1947 is a good starting point. Remember UN Resolution 181? It called for the partition of British-ruled Palestine into two states—Jewish and Arab. The Brits said, “OK,” the Jews were happy as larks but the Arab Palestinians said, “No way, José.” Boy, they should have taken that deal instead of starting a war. Under the UN plan, they would have had a helluva lot more than they’ll ever get now. Looking at the maps, I see they even would be living in my house.

Anyway, the Arabs didn’t like the offer and Iraq sent thousands of “volunteers” to help drive the Jews into the sea. A lot of them are still here—in the “martyrs” cemeteries you find in Palestinian towns.

Our relations with Baghdad have been the pits ever since. They were especially ugly during the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein sent us a present of 39 Scuds. Luckily, he’s a lousy shot.

Saddam portrays himself to the Arab world as the leader most willing and able to “liberate” Palestine. He swears he has 6.5 million volunteers in a “Jerusalem Liberation Army” ready to fight for the Palestinian cause. All he needs, he says, is a teeny bit of land border with Israel so he can march on in. He doesn’t understand why the Jordanians won’t give it to him.

But, the Hashemite Jordanians do not like being reminded that their country sits on 81 percent of historic Palestine, a nice chunk of land the Brits gave them when the Hashemites were thrown out of Arabia by the Saudis. And Saddam forgets that Amman has its own problems with Palestinians, who make up 60 percent of Jordan’s population. Palestinian hostility to the Hashemites comes out every now and then and the Jordanians deal with it sternly. Remember “Black September” in 1970? What the Jordanians did to the Palestinians then makes Israel’s Jenin incursion look like a Boy Scout rally. Historians agree that at least 2000 Palestinians were killed by Jordanian troops, but the Palestinians, who have a penchant for adding zeros to all their casualty figures, claim the deaths numbered between 10,000 and 25,000.

Saddam Hussein, who one sage said is “willing to fight Israel to the last Palestinian,” has now upped the blood money paid suicide bombers. Their families used to get $10,000. Now it’s $25,000. That was a bit over a month ago and the incentive seems to work—some 13 Palestinians have blown themselves to smithereens since.

Then we hear that Saddam is training “kamikaze pilots” for missions à la Osama bin Laden. Word has it that Israeli intelligence is watching a group of 200 Iraqi pilots specially tutored in “desert-hugging” flights, barely detectable by radar. The supposed target? The Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev desert—you know, the one we pass off to visitors as a “textile factory.”

I don’t know if it’s true. If you want facts, go ask Saddam. But I kind of believe it. After all, we took out their nuclear bomb factory, the one at Osirak, in 1981. Remember? At the time, the whole world expressed public outrage at our “unwarranted” attack on a sovereign state.

Now we have this oil business. Saddam, hoping to make everyone in the world more pissed off at us than they already are, announced that he is suspending oil exports for a month to protest Israeli military operations against the Palestinians. Oil prices soared, as did international protests against Israel.

Saddam’s strategy makes sense. As long as everyone is preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no one is going to be in the mood to cooperate with an attack on his regime. It would be especially difficult for Arab states, no matter how much they hate him, to support an attempt to topple the man who gets billing as the “Palestinian Patron Saint.”

The Israeli government has become very grumpy over what it considers Washington’s obsession with Iraq. Some officials think focusing on Iraq is a mistake because the real threat is from Iran. Tehran, they say, has major weapons factories manufacturing even ICBMs and it bankrolls the world’s main terrorist networks.

Some in the Israeli cabinet complain that the U.S. is putting so much pressure on Israel to settle the conflict only because Washington wants support for its oft promised actions against Iraq.

One obviously naive government official was overheard complaining, “Can you believe it? The United States is trying to get us to stop the war in order to preserve its own interests.” Hello?

But many Israelis would be perfectly happy if Washington pursued its own interests a bit more forcefully. Like by jumping in with guns blazing to settle this mess. That would force us both into a cease-fire and back to the negotiating table. We could use some peace and quiet too—and time to smell the petunias.