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Israel sitting on sidelines, ready for spoils of Iraq war

On top of Palestinian suicide bombings, Israelis' nerves have been stretched further in recent months as they replay their experience during the 1991 Gulf War: gas masks, sealed rooms, missile batteries and fears of an Iraqi biological or chemical attack.

Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel in 1991 and has since helped bankroll Palestinian suicide attacks. During 29 months of the Palestinian uprising, Hussein has given millions of dollars to families of suicide bombers and other dead Palestinians.

So opinion polls show a war on Iraq highly popular here, and experts speak openly about how much Israel has to gain.

"A war with Iraq serves Israel's strategic interests because it wants Saddam gone," said retired Gen. Avraham Rotem, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "Someone says, "You sit back, we'll take care of it' _ what's better than that?"

As a bonus, some say, Hussein's fall could spread democracy through the region and force Israel's other enemies to reconsider their support for Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.

"Different countries in the region will have second thoughts about whether it pays for them to endanger themselves for things that really don't have anything to do with them," said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who was ambassador to the United States in 1991.

Israeli officials expect to watch war against Iraq from the sidelines, insisting that it is unlikely Hussein will strike at the Jewish state again.

The probability of a desperate Hussein launching weapons of mass destruction, and Israel responding in kind, isn't zero but it's low, said Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, a government spokesman.

Instead, Arafat envisions Israel using the war as cover for ratcheting up military strikes in the West Bank and Gaza. Still, Israelis fear that militant Islamic groups could intensify their attacks in solidarity with Hussein and that, if war dragged on, passions in the Arab world would somehow take their toll on Israel.

Many expect that once the Iraq issue is settled, the United States will turn its attention back to brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Moderates on both sides would welcome it, but it might spell trouble for the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships.

The scenario would replicate the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when the United States pushed then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a hard-liner, to a peace conference in Madrid.

Shamir offered no territorial compromises and lost elections a year later. Sharon, another hard-liner, might face a similar test.

A determined U.S. peace effort also could force the Palestinian leadership into a confrontation with its own hard-liners, which it consistently has tried to avoid.

One reason Israelis are less worried about being targeted anew by Saddam is that the Americans are expected to quickly seize western Iraq, the only part of the country within Scud range of Israel.

In 1991, Scud attacks caused damage but few casualties. Then, Israel's only protection against Scuds were the Patriot missiles airlifted here by the Americans, and although they boosted Israeli morale and helped dissuade Shamir from entering the war, they weren't much use in knocking down Iraqi rockets.

Now it has the Arrow, a costly U.S.-Israeli co-production touted as the world's first fully deployed and successfully tested anti-missile system.

Sharon, who values his good relations with President Bush, has said Israel will protect itself this time, but has been intentionally vague about how.

Shoval said that although "Israel is not interested in being directly involved in the war," it would retaliate in coordination with the United States if attacked _ and "if it thinks it must."

Besides, the political equation for Hussein is different, analysts say.

In 1991, Iraq sought to provoke Israel into entering the war and driving the Arabs out of the U.S.-led coalition. Today, there is no such coalition, and Iraqi officials say they have no intention _ or means _ of attacking Israel.