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ADORNING WAR PAINT IN CAIRO AND DAMASCUS

by Uri Dan and Dennis Eisenberg

DURING A BBC broadcast from Cairo on October 26 a high-ranking Egyptian official was quoted as saying: "'At one time Israel was seen as dividing the Arabs. Now it is our turn to create divisions among the Israelis."

This was how he explained President Hosni Mubarak's recent invitations to President Ezer Weizman and Labour Party chairman Shimon Peres to visit Cairo.

The BBC made no bones about pointing out that this was a clear snub to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It was just one more arrow aimed at the premier from Cairo, to be laid alongside others that have been shot at him from the Egyptian quiver for some time now - like calling him a Nazi, comparing him to Hitler and saying he needs to see a psychiatrist.

One might in the normal way dismiss such verbal insults, but for one fact: As surely as winter rain-clouds filled Israel's skies this week so are war clouds ominously gathering.

The situation today is eerily similar to the scenario in 1967, when Egypt and Syria, backed by Soviet weapons and evil intent, noted a comparable atmosphere of discord in Israel. It was the prevailing severe economic recession at the time that gave rise to the black joke requesting "'the last citizen leaving Lod [today Ben-Gurion] Airport to please turn off the lights."

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol tried to curry favour with Egypt by ordering his pet "'peace dove" Abba Eban to conduct a policy of nothing less than all-out appeasement. Then, as today, the Arab nations perceived Israel as weak and politically split.

Other Eshkol "'doves" turned even to the Kremlin for support, just as today their successors appeal to Europe, especially France, and Moscow to create a situation in which Israel will be compelled to make major sacrifices to please its Arab neighbours.

On the eve of the Six Day War the lions of the Arab world, perceiving their hated foe as being on its knees, unsheathed their swords and marched on Israel from Syria in the north and Egypt in the south.

Egyptian intelligence documents found in Sinai proved that President Gamal Abdel Nasser did not want a full war, just enough military hubbub to cause the dispirited Jews to scream and accept such Egyptians demands as handing over Eilat. It didn't quite work out that way. The Israelis roared back - to such effect that an astonished Eshkol found himself ruling a kingdom almost as large as the one created by the warrior King David 3 000 years ago.

NOW let's look at today. The Arabs are buoyed by the vicious attacks being made by opponents of the present government, by the claims that Israel's economy is heading for a slump and that a war is on its way because Netanyahu does not want peace.

Young army officers in Cairo and Damascus, ignorant of what really happened in 1967, are gleefully adorning themselves with war paint. They look at Israel and see a bitterly-divided, fretful political scene boiling with turmoil. The "'strike the enemy when he is weak and unprepared" concept, imbibed with their mothers' milk, resound in their ears.

The BBC broadcast from Cairo, reflecting an atmosphere of "'divide them before you devour them" is a clear indication of Arab thinking today.

Fantasy? One must think back to the gathering of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo in October. Following it Foreign Minister David Levy declared their agenda clear: to make things difficult for Israel. Senior Netanyahu aides believe that in Cairo the Arab ministers took a series of political and military steps aimed at toppling Israel's government.

Again the ultimate purpose may not be all-out, total war but to catapult Shimon Peres into a newly-formed national unity government. Little wonder, then, that the Labour Party leader is such a welcome guest chez Mubarak and Arafat.

Israeli intelligence is conscious of the danger. We were told by a top figure: "'Today there is full-scale cooperation between Arafat, Mubarak and Assad. We suspect they might repeat the 1967 mistake of Nasser, their idol."

A scenario we envisage seriously is for the Syrians to make a limited move in the Golan and seize a couple of Druse villages to "'liberate" them. In addition the Palestinian police might open fire on Israeli soldiers as they did a few weeks ago, with possible Egyptian co-ordination. The Arabs' purpose is clear: To bring Netanyahu to his knees and force him to fulfil all Israel's obligations under the Oslo accords (never mind that the Palestinians have breached virtually all of theirs.)

It would be 1967 all over again - but with a difference. Israel would be facing the reality of a confrontation with one hand tied behind its back. For in its midst waits the menace of 50 000 or so heavily armed Arafat "'policemen". The only way out is for the country - left and right - to unite immediately. In this way, perhaps, it can fend off the danger.

The writers are authors of The Mossad: Secrets of the Israeli Secret Service, and other books on the Middle East.
The above is an edited version of a piece first published in The Jerusalem Post on November 7. Used with permission.

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