- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

JERUSALEM Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes a U.S.-led military onslaught against Iraq is inevitable, and that the Baghdad regime will collapse like a house of cards but not before Israel sustains a potentially costly blow from President Saddam Hussein's unconventional weapons arsenal.

"[T]he imperative is to defang the Iraqi regime by preventing its acquisition of atomic weapons," the still-popular Israeli politician said. "No inspectors will be able to do that job."

Mr. Netanyahu was celebrating his 53rd birthday Monday in his spacious office here, an amenity provided by the Israeli government to all its former prime ministers.

His mood was upbeat, largely because of a stunning victory over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a Likud party vote in its Jerusalem caucus. "It was a nice birthday present," he said.

Mr. Netanyahu's discourse ranged from Israel's dispute with the Palestinians to its struggle with Islamic extremism and crackdown against unauthorized Jewish outposts in the West Bank.

He made short shrift of Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's threat to resign and take his left-of-center Labor Party out of Gen. Sharon's national unity government. Mr. Ben-Eliezer made the threat after conservative ministers objected to his sending troops and police to oust die-hard, illegal Jewish settlers.

"I don't think he will decide to leave the government until the battle for Labor's leadership is over in mid-November," Mr. Netanyahu said. "If Ben-Eliezer wins, I think the coalition will remain in office. If he loses, the chances of Labor pulling out will be greater. And if that happens, we'll go to an early election."

Mr. Netanyahu offered no sympathy for the so-called "youth of the hills," the militants who fought pitched battles against the uniformed personnel sent by Mr. Ben-Eliezer to evict them. "No one should lift a finger against an Israeli soldier or policeman," he said.

Focusing on the threat posed by Saddam, Mr. Netanyahu predicted the Iraqi ruler would attack Israel in his "last gasps." He said there had been a major change in Iraq's nuclear technology after the Israeli air force bombed the Ossirac nuclear reactor outside Baghdad in June 1981.

"Saddam is using a decentralized system with production sites that are tiny. It is a decentralized technology with small-scale centrifuges that are portable very small and can fit into a small room. In a large country like Iraq, it is impossible to uncover this."

Referring to U.N. personnel dispatched to detect this activity, he said: "The inspectors are doomed to failure from the start. I think President Bush understands that, and this is why there will be no alternative other than to take military action to prevent the arming of Iraq with nuclear weapons."

Asked about the worldwide problem of terrorism, Mr. Netanyahu seemed most concerned about Iraq's unconventional weaponry. In his view, attacks like the recent bombing in Bali, Indonesia, are threats of smaller magnitude than the ones posed by Saddam.

"I think that a nuclear bomb in the proverbial suitcase that explodes in downtown Manhattan or Washington is mega-terrorism," he said. He applied the same definition to "a cannister of toxic germs that is put into a water reservoir."

"I think that this is the true specter that haunts us in the 21st century," he said.

"We must destroy the terror network that is capable of acting in Bali or the Philippines or Tel Aviv," he went on, "by bringing down the regimes that support it."

Mr. Netanyahu said he assumed that the United States will take action to deny Saddam the ability to launch Scud missiles against Israel from western Iraq.

Washington's motive presumably would be to keep Israel out of the conflict in order to retain the support of as many Arab states as possible. He termed this "a top priority" for Washington.

"I would not make any recommendations about the war plans," he said, "except to say that it is very important to reiterate a message that already has been sent by the U.S. that those who actually do the launching of unconventional weapons against Israel will be apprehended and tried as war criminals."

Turning to the aftermath of an American military victory in Iraq, Mr. Netanyahu stressed the importance of fostering a genuine transition to democracy, albeit within the parameters of the Middle East's political reality.

"I think we have to be realistic in our expectation," he said. "Iraq will not turn into a model democracy. Even over many years, it might not become a classic democracy as we understand it. But we have no choice but to begin to ventilate these societies, to give people a chance to hear something other than the drumbeat of a clerical fanaticism or the drumbeat of radical despots.

"In both cases, they are poisoning an entire generation and even future generations and instilling in them a cult of death."

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