JERUSALEM, JULY 1 -- Rumors of war are sweeping through a tense Middle East, but the region's military and political balance weighs against the outbreak of a new Arab-Israeli conflict, in the view of a wide range of officials and experts.
Stirred by the breakdown of the peace process, the mass immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel or their own political ambitions, the leaders of every major Arab state facing Israel have issued warnings of war in recent weeks. Most conspicuously, Iraq's Saddam Hussein has repeatedly threatened to "burn half of Israel" with chemical weapons if attacked, and he added last week that war is "inevitable" if Israel does not change its policies.
The saber-rattling has been taken seriously in Israel, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has just inaugurated a right-wing government packed with ministers known for hard-line views. The situation reminds some Israelis of 1967, when skirmishes between Israel and Syria and bellicose posturing by other Arab leaders eventually escalated into the Six-Day War.
Still, a variety of military and political sources say that some of the key forces that pushed Israel and the Arab states into war in the past no longer exist. At the same time, these sources say, there are new deterrents to attack on both sides of the conflict.
That cautiously optimistic assessment ends with a nagging worry that, much as in 1967, the current round of inflamed rhetoric and false perceptions could take on its own momentum and escalate into a conflagration no leader really wants.
"Wars sometimes break out when people least expect them," said Gerald Steinberg, a senior political scientist at the Bar-Illan and Hebrew universities in Israel. "And if we're talking about an unplanned escalation of conflict, that's more likely now than it was five or 10 years ago."
Not surprisingly, Arab leaders and experts blame Israel for the rising tensions. Shamir's government, they note, brought the peace process to a halt in the spring by refusing to accept a formula for opening Israeli-Palestinian talks worked out by the United States and Egypt. Also, they say, Israel has refused to guarantee that Soviet immigrants pouring into the country will not settle in the occupied territories at the expense of resident Palestinians, whose claim to a separate state is a region-wide cause among Arabs and Moslems.
Nevertheless, several prominent Arab sources said they did not believe Israel wants to launch a new war. "I don't think war is imminent or is going to take place," said Adnan Abu Odeh, a top political adviser to Jordan's King Hussein and one Arab leader who has been warning of the dangerously tense situation in the Middle East. "I think Israel is busy right now absorbing immigrants. That is their first priority, and I don't think they will disrupt that."
Israeli leaders point out that it is the Arab states, not Israel, that have been the source of the recent bellicose talk. In addition to Saddam Hussein's threats, Syrian President Hafez Assad, who commands a formidable military machine on Israel's northeastern border, recently predicted that Arab states could outlast Israel in a war.
Even President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, which has been at peace with Israel since 1979, warned recently that tensions over Soviet immigration to the Jewish state could lead to a war. As Israel's new government took office last month, false rumors that Israel was massing troops on Egypt's border were widely reported in the Cairo press.
Still, analysts within and outside Israel tend to interpret the rhetoric as less a call to battle than an expression of political rivalries and insecurities that have emerged within the Arab world in recent years. In the view of Israel, a senior military official said, "Saddam Hussein is trying to establish Iraq over Egypt as the leader of the Arab world. To do that, since Mubarak offers the peace strategy, Saddam is pushing the war strategy, saying that only by fighting Israel can anything be accomplished. A lot of it is not aimed at us but at Egypt, which is Iraq's rival."
Some observers also believe that Arab leaders are hoping their rhetoric will attract the attention of the Soviet Union and the United States, both of which are perceived to have lessened their involvement in the Middle East in the last several years. "Now all Arab countries, and even Israel, have got an interest in showing that the area is so filled with tension that just a match could inflame it," said one foreign military attache with long service in the region. "They are trying to attract again not only superpower interest, but superpower support."
What undermines the tough talk in the eyes of many observers is the relative weakness of the Arab threat to Israel, especially in comparison to the previous war years of 1967 and 1973. With Egypt unlikely to break its peace with Israel, and Iraq and Syria bitterly divided by the rivalry between Saddam Hussein and Assad, the Arab world appears incapable of mounting the united attack that stretched Israel across two fronts in the past.
Moreover, experts say, the relative disengagement of the Soviet Union from the Middle East means that Arab military leaders could probably not count on the vital Soviet military and political support they received in past wars. Without a massive Soviet commitment to resupply materiel, Syria, which has been Moscow's major Middle East client, "probably does not have enough stockpiles to launch a conventional war against Israel," said Israeli expert Steinberg.
Arab sources say no such support from Moscow is foreseeable, even though Israel can still probably count on emergency U.S. supplies in wartime. "The Soviet role in the Middle East will be limited," one Egyptian intelligence source said. "Generally, we are seeing a military withdrawal of the Soviets."
Although less dependent on Moscow, Iraq's Saddam Hussein cannot easily deploy a large conventional force against Israel without risking his eastern front against Iran, with which Iraq still has no peace treaty. Israeli commanders speak with awe of Iraq's 55 battle-hardened army divisions -- even at full deployment, Israel can field only 12 -- but say they believe Saddam Hussein cannot afford to move most of those forces away from the Iranian border.
Saddam Hussein's boasts of wielding chemical weapons and recent evidence of his efforts to develop nuclear arms have prompted speculation that a new Middle East conflict could be nonconventional, with Israel, Iraq and Syria pounding each other with weapons of mass destruction at long range. Again, however, the Arab states cannot match Israel, the only power in the region that is believed to have stockpiled nuclear as well as chemical weapons.
Although Iraq has deployed intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Israeli military intelligence experts say they believe it has not yet succeeded in developing a chemical or biological warhead to mount on the missiles. Thus, any attempt by Saddam Hussein to "burn half of Israel" would probably have to be launched by bomber against Israel's vastly superior air force and would risk devasting nuclear retaliation.
"We realize that if the situation is going to escalate, it will end against the Arabs and Iraq in particular," said one Egyptian official. A Western diplomat in Baghdad added: "Saddam . . . is not suicidal. He knows he cannot win a war with Israel."
Despite these clear disincentives for conflict, many Israelis and Arabs say they are worried that a sudden war of missiles, or even a full-scale conventional battle, could erupt without any strategic decision by either side. In the Middle East, they point out, conflict is as often driven by false perceptions, exaggerated fears and mistrust as by cold calculation.
An Israeli government source pointed out that while Israel has developed a stable language of signs and signals with neighbors Jordan and Syria, "we don't know Iraq. We don't understand Saddam. We don't know if he means what he says, or what he wants, or how to tell him what we want. That creates tension in itself and opens the way to dangerous misunderstandings."
Saddam Hussein, added the senior military source, "is the devil we don't know. He's unpredictable. And that makes the situation more problematic." The military official, who was interviewed on condition he not be named, said Israel was less worried about a deliberate strike from Iraq than about subterfuge, or even a simple mishap. "I worry about chemical weapons being given to terrorists" by Iraq or Libya, "and then being used against Israel," the official said.
He added: "What if there is another accident, like the explosion that took place a few months ago at an Iraqi military facility? Saddam blamed that on Israel. If another such accident happened, and it is blamed on Israel, he might be driven by all his rhetoric into taking action."
Another scenario that worries both Arab and Israeli analysts is that of a surprise Israeli strike on Iraqi chemical or nuclear facilities, like the 1981 bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor by Israeli warplanes. Such an attack, Steinberg said, "could lead to a cycle of an Iraqi counterattack, followed by an Israeli counter-counterattack, that could escalate easily to a full-scale war."
Whether such an explosive situation develops, several experts said, may depend in part on whether Middle East diplomacy can be swung back toward peace negotiations in the coming months. If not, the hostile rhetoric and escalating mutual fears it breeds may continue to build.
"There's nothing called ripe conditions for war," said Mohammed Zia-el-din Zohdy, a retired Egyptian general and author of a book on Egypt's 1973 war with Israel. The question, he said, should be, "Is the situation deteriorating? I think it's deteriorating. The problem is that the peace process has stopped."
Diehl reported this article from Jerusalem, Murphy from Cairo.