The Iraqi president's aim would be to split America's alliance with moderate Arab countries, which might be unwilling to be seen fighting alongside Israel even against Iraq. Mr. Bush has said he was convinced the coalition would not fall apart if Iraq attacked Israel, but it is unclear if he has any specific assurances.
Nor is it clear whether Saddam Hussein would carry out his threat against the Jewish state. Israel is in some ways his most dangerous enemy because if Israel felt its vital security was threatened it would, unlike the United States, not hesitate to bomb Baghdad.
But some Israel experts speculate that Saddam Hussein may be trying to unnerve Israel into striking at him first, even before America decides whether to take him on. Israel's most likely pre-emptive target would be the Iraqi missile bases nearest to Israel, which sit in western Iraq close to the border of Jordan. If this happened, the Iraqi president - for a relatively small military price - would be able to crow to the Arab world that the alliance against him was a "Zionist-American" plot out to destroy Iraq.
Israel, however, doesn't look likely to take the bait to strike first. The Israelis, at America's urging and at some psychic cost, have been keeping a very low profile in the Persian Gulf conflict. According to officials in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's office, he told President Bush during his visit to Washington two weeks ago that Israel will not stage a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens this week played down the danger Iraqi missiles could do, stressing that they were "clumsy weapons" with "very limited" ability to do damage. His remarks seemed designed to avert any public panic in the country. (In fact, since a flurry of nervouseness when Israeli authorities distributed gas masks, Israelis seem to be taking the war threat in stride and paying more attention to the massive influx of Soviet Jews, the rash of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians and a huge corruption scandal in one of the ultra-religious political parties.)
What remains unclear, however, is what Israel will do if Saddam Hussein does launch missiles at Tel Aviv.
In public, Israeli leaders are talking tough. After the threat to hit Tel Aviv, Shamir retorted "all those who threaten us should know that whoever dares strike Israel will be struck hard and in the most severe way."
In private, however, some Israeli officials say that their response would be proportionate to the nature of the attack. "If one missile lands and there is no damage, there would be one kind of response," I was told by a senior official, (presumably a response against a military target), but "If five missiles land in Tel Aviv with several hundred dead, there would be another kind of response." If chemical weapons were used - which many experts here doubt will happen because they don't think Iraq has the technical capacity - the Israeli response against Baghdad would be extremely harsh.
But despite this policy of differentiation, some Israeli experts - especially those close to Israel's opposition Labor Party - are wondering out loud whether any military response to a minimal Iraqi strike might play into Saddam Hussein's hands.
He might deliberately launch a token missile strike, inviting only a minimal reaction, but still achieving his goal of bringing Israel into the battle alongside the U.S.-Arab coalition, speculated Shai Feldman, an expert on military affairs at Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Institute for Strategic Studies. "There are circumstances in which it would be better for Israel not to react at all," he told me.
Well-known military affairs commentator Eithan Haber, who worked for former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, argues that, with the current makeup of the hawkish Likud government, "it makes no difference how many missiles land. . . . War planes will be launched in response." His nightmare scenario is that since these planes would have to cross Jordan and would likely shoot down the Jordanian missile defense system, Israel might precipitate the collapse of the Jordanian regime, leading to a hornet's nest of new problems, possibly even a battle with nearby Syria.
Obviously the United States is worried about such scenarios. Rumors persist, despite vehement denials by Israeli officials, that Bush and Shamir made a secret pact. Supposedly, the United States promised to provide Israel with immediate spy-satellite warnings of any sign that Iraq is about to launch missiles towards Israel in exchange for Israel's promise to consult with Washington before launching any strike against Iraq.
Clearly Washington would like Israel to rely on the U.S. air force for protection or retribution, something that Israel has never had the option of doing in the past. A senior offical here assured me that any Israeli response to an Iraqi attack would be a "clever one," but the issue may be less one of cleverness than whether Israel trusts U.S. assurances - and military prowess - enough to exercise military self-restraint. That is a tall order for a country that is extremely wary - for bitter historic reasons - of leaving its security to anyone else. But Israel's decision on this matter could have a major impact on how a war turns out.