Israel's Nuclear Option

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JERUSALEM: This time, Israel may not simply sit back and watch. As the prospect of an American attack on Iraq appears more and more likely, Israelis are preparing for the worst. "The feeling in Israeli intelligence is that [Saddam] can certainly do it," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "He has biological weapons and if he wants to he can pull it off."

So far, the U.S. has not said publicly that it expects Israel to refrain from holding its fire, as was the case during the Gulf War. Benjamin Netanyahu has said his country has the "know-how" to cope with an Iraqi strike. And that could mean nukes, says Beyer. "The message is uniform that Israel will retaliate in a devastating way which is certainly meant to imply that they would use nuclear weapons." Officially, Israel is silent about its nuclear capability.

Officials concede the prospect of an Iraqi attack is remote at best. But Israelis are still lining up for gas masks, and many in Tel Aviv Iraq's primary Scud rocket target during the Gulf War are anxious. "In one scenario, if the American attacks are too devastating, Saddam will feel desperate and attack Israel to stop the Americans or to secure his place in history," says Beyer. That would certainly open up a whole new can of worms.