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Gas-Mask Dispute Opens First Fissures In Israeli Coalition

Public demand grows for government to distribute masks

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AS the threat of war in the Gulf looms larger, Israelis are vigorously debating what steps the government should take to prepare for hostilities. At the center of the argument is Foreign Minister David Levy, whose demand that the government distribute gas masks to protect against a possible chemical weapons attack by Iraq has turned civil defense into a political football.

``We can no longer postpone this action in the face of the unknown,'' said Mr. Levy in a statement Sunday.

But on Wednesday the government did just that by putting off a decision to proceed with distributing millions of gas masks and by appointing a special subcommittee to look into the matter.

A Levy aide said the foreign minister was satisfied with the decision. Levy's remarks, however, have caused dismay and anger among government colleagues and in defense circles, where the prevailing wisdom in past weeks has been for Israel to keep a low profile.

The gas-mask debate is also seen as the first serious crack in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing coalition.

``This crisis has really separated the men from the boys,'' says David Landau, a political analyst. ``Mr. Levy is seething over the patent fact that, in his first major international crisis, he's obviously not a policymaker.''

Maintaining a low profile, is the perfect environment for Mr. Shamir, whose career is a lesson in calculated inaction, Mr. Landau says. ``No one in Israel is better at doing nothing,'' he notes.

Yet, many worry Levy's desire to distribute gas masks would send Baghdad the wrong signal. ``A precipitous preparation could, and probably would, be construed either as a sign of insecurity and trepidation or as a preface to a preemptive attack on Iraq,'' wrote the Jerusalem Post.

Public demands for a change in policy started two weeks ago, when Iraq accused Israel of secretly assisting the United States in its military buildup in the Gulf and threatened reprisals.

``Has the time not come to calmly and quietly open the stores of antichemical-weapons equipment for distribution to the public,'' asked the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Stores selling gas masks and other protective equipment have reported record sales.

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