JERUSALEM -- If the prospect of one's hanging concentrates the mind, then the prospect of a poison gas attack absolutely rivets it. Understandably then, the line at the Jerusalem Rubber Shop stretches into the street. Here Israelis buy plastic sheeting to seal rooms, and here they exchange tips on where tape can be found.
Will Saddam Hussein launch a chemical attack by missile on Israel? The betting here is that he will. He has said as much, apparently has the capability to do so, and it is in his interest to get Israel into the fight and possibly shatter the Arab alliance against him. Like America's southern politicians of yore who were easily intimidated by the single issue of race, moderate Arabs are easily intimidated by the single issue of Israel.
Israel, too, has its traditions. One of them is to look out for itself. Another is to make the Arabs pay doubly any price extracted from Israel. Both traditions are logical, based, Israelis say, on the ways of the Middle East. But yet another tradition is emotional as well: Israel will not countenance the killing of children.
Possibly the Israeli position is just another way of telling Saddam that he is taken seriously here -- a warning of sorts. But a warning seems beside the point. The consensus is that Saddam will not budge and that war is inevitable. Indeed, Middle East experts -- American as well as Israeli -- have concluded that Saddam thinks war is the only way out for him. If he can survive the war, he can emerge as the unchallenged leader of the Arab world -- champion of the Palestinians and the only leader in recent memory who stood up to Washington. Victory is defined politically. Ask a Texan about the Alamo.
Unlike the United States, there is very little debate here over whether sanctions could eventually cause Saddam to cry uncle. Middle East experts here, exhibiting more than a little contempt for their American counterparts, consider Saddam as metaphorically menacing as President Bush's description of him: a Hitler. They entertain no doubts that his intention was to take more than just Kuwait: the Gulf states for sure and maybe Saudi Arabia as well. The Iraqi army sent into Kuwait was overqualified for the task, they say -- a clear indication that Saddam had something grander in mind.
Moreover, Israeli experts were saying last spring that Iraq was gearing up to make trouble. While they were being assured by Washington that Saddam's threats were just rhetoric (he threatened gas attacks against Israel), they nevertheless took these statements at something like face value: Saddam was up to something, they warned. Now, with windows being sealed and Israeli television showing how to cope with a gas attack, it is small comfort to these experts that they were right.
Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian and, later, German chancellor, once said that "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" would start World War I. It turned out to be Serbia. Now, something similar has happened. The "damned foolish thing" is Kuwait, a Middle Eastern Serbia.
World War I now comes to mind for another reason. Then as now ultimatums were issued, armies were mobilized, and statesmen, desperately trying to avert war, found themselves hemmed in by the timetables of generals. These soon became controlling, and so each nation went to war before it thought the other was ready. They were all ready.
Something like that seems to be happening now -- another deadline, another timetable set by the military, another war that may well convulse and then remake the region and, yes, another war in which "victory" may well turn out to be a prelude to an even worse war. In Israel, for instance, a virtually Balkan mingling of peoples means the situation on the ground could be worse than any in the skies. For both Palestinians and Jews, the coming days may mean even more bloodshed -- happy days for the area's abundant crop of zealots.
History teaches so many lessons it seems to speak in double talk. But the sealing of rooms and the storage of food is history itself: a defense against a tyrant who has used gas against civilians and might do so again. This in itself speaks volumes about the challenge the West now faces. Oil is a factor, sure, and principle (the rule of law) is yet another, but Saddam is his own lesson. He is a rogue who must be stopped. It is not the Israelis who are convincing about that. It's Saddam Hussein.