The Worst-Case Scenario
By Edward N. Luttwak

Few still hope that Yasser Arafat could ever be Israel's partner in peace, but many now feel that his predicament could become the catalyst of a much larger conflict. If it began to unfold, it could unleash pent-up forces and take on a disastrous momentum of its own. When the possibility arose that Arafat might be killed in the ruins of his headquarters, there was undisguised panic among Arab governments. What they dreaded also greatly alarmed their European counterparts, as well as the U.S. and even the Israelis themselves: uncontrollable mass demonstrations in Arab capitals that might compel reluctant rulers to try to attack Israel in turn.
How would it begin? In one grim scenario, it would start with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who is in the most exposed position of all. His controlled media have long been replete with fervent anti-Israeli propaganda in a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from corruption and mismanagement at home. Endless television replays of the most brutal scenes of the Israeli occupation have hammered home the message that Egypt's most urgent concern is the plight of the Palestinians. At the same time, what is still a military-based regime justifies large expenditures on the armed forces amid extreme poverty by boasting of their strength. Mubarak therefore risks becoming the prisoner of his own propaganda: If Palestine is all-important and Egypt that strong, why not use its strength against the Israelis? The least dangerous Egyptian move would be disastrous in its consequences. Violating Anwar Sadat's peace treaty, cutting itself off from vital U.S. aid, the Egyptian army could send part of its vast forces--say, the four tank divisions and eight mechanized divisions with 1,600 battle tanks, including first-line U.S. M1A1s--into the Sinai peninsula to threaten the Israeli frontier. Compelling the Israelis to mobilize their own army, which would very likely freeze any further action against the Palestinians, would make sense as a piece of military gamesmanship. But strategically it would be catastrophic, because if the Egyptians acted, Syria's young and insecure President Bashar Assad would most likely feel compelled to compete with them by sending his own armored forces--seven divisions with 2,000 tanks--to threaten the Golan frontier. And then even King Abdullah of Jordan, who greatly values his peace treaty with Israel, might come under irresistible pressure from his Palestinian subjects to send his two armored and two mechanized divisions, equipped with some 700 tanks, opposite the Jordanian frontier.
None of this need be done with any intention of actually fighting to provoke a war nonetheless. Other Arab governments could be propelled by a mounting spiral of popular enthusiasm to send their own forces to reinforce the frontline states. That would cue Saddam Hussein to demand his opportunity to send armored forces to threaten Israel by marching through Jordan or Syria or both. The King of Jordan would dread such contaminating assistance in his territory, and Assad of Syria too would fear it, but if the rhetorical escalation of the leaders and popular agitation heat up the climate, it might become impossible to deny passage to Iraqi forces in part because they might bring with them the chemical or even biological weapons that evoke the special enthusiasm of Hamas and other fundamentalists. Finally, there is the Hizballah militia in southern Lebanon, already deployed close to Israel's northern frontier with hundreds of bombardment rockets ready to strike as far away as the port city of Haifa.
Competing mobilizations amid mounting waves of popular enthusiasm would be a direct replay of what happened in 1967, which back then triggered humiliating Arab military defeats and the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, which still endures. For that very reason the scenario might seem exceedingly improbable. As the frequent references to 7th century events in political speeches show, Arabs have excellent historical memories. Even those born after 1967 know the story very well. Certainly each government has powerful reasons to refrain from anything more than diplomatic protests even if Arafat is killed. Egypt would lose the U.S. aid that pays for the very weapons it would deploy ($2 billion a year) and for much of its daily bread. Jordan is likewise dependent, Syria's equipment is too outdated to risk war, and even Saddam Hussein can hardly threaten Israel with ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction whose existence he strenuously denies.
But madness is rare only among individuals. It is quite common in entire nations. The Israelis themselves might reasonably be said to be mad to think they can have a tranquil occupation of Palestinian areas--actually they are merely split down the middle between those who have long wanted to withdraw and those who think land is more important than peace. As for the Arab leaders, what might cause them to behave irrationally is their lack of legitimacy--nobody elected them, very few of their subjects respect their competence, and lately many are seen as the slavish stooges of the U.S.
If the Arab-buildup scenario came to pass, the Israelis would be forced to mobilize some 425,000 reservists to staff their armed forces, a large part of their entire able-bodied population. Because it would paralyze their economy and indeed society as a whole, mobilization cannot last much more than a few weeks at most. Unless diplomatic pressure induces the Arab forces to withdraw again, the Israelis would attack to force them into flight or destroy them, as in 1967.
But for the Israelis such a war would not be a repeat of 1967. Since then, the military balance has moved greatly in favor of Israel. Almost useless in stopping suicide bombers, downright clumsy in facing stone-throwing teenagers, the Israeli armed forces are much better at doing what they are trained and equipped to do: smash regular forces with superior firepower and skill. With some 400 first-line strike aircraft and a large inventory of guided weapons (Israel is a major producer and exporter), they have a combination of weapon loads and accuracy that would be devastating to Arab ground forces. If Arab air forces were to intervene to protect them, it is believed that the Israelis would shoot down at least 30 aircraft for each loss of their own (in 1982 they scored 80-0 against the Syrians). The Israeli army's 11 armored divisions would be outnumbered, but Israeli armored columns are trained to move significantly faster than their enemies, to outmaneuver them if the terrain allows, while their gunnery--100% the product of female instructors--is thought to be far superior.
The Israelis would have no surefire way of stopping the Hizballah from launching its huge inventory of Iranian-supplied bombardment rockets at the villages and cities of northern Israel. Although grossly inaccurate, they would still inflict damage. Syria also has hundreds of bombardment rockets, some with chemical warheads, but unlike the Hizballah guerrillas, it must fear Israeli retaliation. No Arab air force is likely to be much of a threat to Israeli cities, while if Saddam Hussein chooses to blow his cover by launching the handful of ballistic missiles he has kept hidden all these years, they are unlikely to do much damage. In 1991 the 50 Scud missiles fired into Israel frightened many but killed nobody. Even if Iraqi missiles have nerve gas or anthrax warheads, they are unlikely to kill more than a few. The theoretical potency of agents like VX--one tiny drop kills--or anthrax is defeated by the mechanics of distribution and dilution. A missile warhead would have to open up to release its cargo on top of a crowd to kill many, and that is a far more advanced capability than Saddam Hussein could possibly have.
But, of course, even a splendid victory would be disastrous for Israel, because at great expense in wealth and blood, it would gain nothing in the aftermath that it did not have before the current crisis: safety from invasion. And any outcome at all would be disastrous for Western and especially American interests. Nobody can even bear to contemplate an utterly improbable Israeli defeat. But if Arab leaders are humiliatingly defeated, the most likely outcome of a war, the fundamentalists would have their first real chance of coming to power. Arafat's ineffectual strategy and utter recklessness have thus caused a crisis that induces all, even the Israelis, to wish him a long life, for his death might precipitate the most damaging of wars.
Edward N. Luttwak is the author of
Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace

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