Commentary Magazine


Israel After the Gulf War

Of the two major shocks Israelis suffered in the Gulf War, the “Scud trauma” may have dealt a heavier blow to their sense of themselves than anything since the state’s inception. The nagging daily fear, the flight of tens of thousands from their homes, the cowering in sealed rooms, and, above all, having to accept the ordeal passively were all too reminiscent of a pogrom, while the feeling of helplessness was precisely the kind of experience Israel had been founded to eliminate. To Holocaust survivors, the expectation that one of the Scud warheads might carry poison gas added a flavor of Auschwitz to the ordeal.

Not that the policy of restraint was unpopular. Israelis had nothing but admiration for American determination and political courage in pursuing the war. And despite the abuse Israel had suffered at the hands of the Bush administration in the previous coalition-courting months; despite the incredulousness at the display of American deference to Arab regimes whose very existence depended on American willingness to die in their defense; and despite the general belief that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) could reduce, if not eliminate, the Scud threat with greater effectiveness than the coalition airforce, defying the American wish that Israel stay out of the war was unthinkable. Nor could Israelis imagine a more unacceptable scenario than an accidental clash between Israeli and American pilots in Iraqi skies (which would almost certainly have happened if Israel had tried to retaliate without American permission and cooperation).

But many, including even left-wingers and prominent “peace-camp” followers, feared that Israel would lose its deterrence credibility with the Arab states. Before January 15, 1991 it was assumed that the threat of a “massive, telling response” would keep Saddam Hussein from striking at Israel and opening a second front. But in fact Saddam did fulfill his promise to hit Israel, while Israel failed to deliver on its threat to hit back—a dangerous precedent indeed.

Ironically, however, the impression in the Arab world that Israel could be struck with impunity was ameliorated not by Defense Minister Moshe Arens’s repeated assurances that Israel would retaliate at a time of its own choosing, but by Arab propaganda excesses. For example, in a television appearance with King Hussein of Jordan, the PLO chief Yasir Arafat stated, “Of course, as you know, the Israelis are launching cruise missiles against Iraq from the Negev.” The Iraqi ambassador to France, who served as Saddam’s conduit to the Western media during the first weeks of the war, asserted that the Scud attacks on Israel were justified because Israeli pilots, flying repainted planes, were participating in the bombing of Iraq from bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. And the incessant lumping together of Israel and the U.S. as the “American-Zionist” enemy made it appear that Israel was not only responding to the Scud attacks but actively participating in the destruction of Iraq.

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This “Arab street” perception of Israeli involvement, and the Egyptian, Saudi, and even Syrian assurances that an Israeli counterblow would be “understood,” should have taken the wind out of the American argument that real Israeli involvement would unglue the coalition. That the U.S. persisted in prohibiting Israeli action bolsters the suspicion that the administration simply did not want Israel to prove indispensable to its own defense.

Thus, while praised for its restraint, Israel was also reminded even before the war was over of how much the U.S. was doing to protect it. Having pooh-poohed the Scuds as less dangerous than a Georgia thunderstorm—a remark he must have rued when 28 American servicemen were killed by one—General H. Norman Schwarzkopf repeatedly told the press that efforts to destroy the launchers would continue even though those stationed in Western Iraq threatened Israel, but not American troops. Whether Secretary of State James Baker actually said to Arens that American soldiers were shedding their blood to defend Israel, as was reported in the press, or whether the “remark” was merely leaked by someone in the State Department, is immaterial. Clearly, the impression the Bush administration tried to impart was that Israel was a strategic irrelevancy in this war and that it “owed” the U.S. for its protection. Israel’s real contributions to the war—the weapon systems developed and manufactured in Israel which were widely used by American troops, including pilotless reconnaissance drones, computerized firing systems in helicopter gunships, and “popeye” smart bombs—were assiduously played down by the administration.

To make its demand for Israeli restraint palatable, the administration delivered batteries of Patriot anti-missile missiles immediately after the first Scud strike. The accompanying American crews faced no danger in manning the batteries, but their presence in Israel violated another fundamental tenet of Israeli defense doctrine: that no foreign troops would ever be asked to defend the country. (Knowing how sensitive Israel is on this issue, the Palestinian political scientist Saeb Erakat taunted two Israeli officials, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert, during a CNN debate in early March with, “You are nothing but a protectorate, being defended by foreign soldiers.”)

But the Patriots proved a poor substitute for Israeli action against the Scuds. Designed primarily as anti-aircraft missiles, they had been modified to intercept missiles—in itself a formidable achievement—but their effectiveness was limited to small areas. They would deflect an incoming missile at relatively low altitudes, thereby affording protection to military installations. But over cities their ability to divert the warhead from one part of a populated area to another was of little use. In fact, the debris from the Patriots caused almost as much damage as the Scuds. Nor was American air action against the Scuds in Iraq particularly effective. At war’s end at least five fixed launchers and a few dozen mobile ones were still intact.

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Not surprisingly, those who had ardently advocated Israeli withdrawal from Judea, Samaria, and Gaza found in Israel’s vulnerability to Scuds launched from a country which did not even share a border with Israel additional proof of the irrelevance of geographical buffers. The Bush administration, too, from the President on down, lectured Israel on the subject. It was an incongruous position for the government of a country which had once risked nuclear war with the Sovet Union—whose ICBMs could eradicate every American city—over a few missiles in Cuba. Yet such arguments have been made by virtually every administration since 1967. Even George Shultz, whose concern for Israel’s security was undoubtedly sincere, touted it when he was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State.

If anything, however, the Scud attacks only proved that advanced weapons have made strategic depth and topographic advantage more important than ever. For what rendered the Scuds useless as a strategic weapon was the distance—400 miles—from the nearest Iraqi launchers to Israel. The missiles could only terrorize the population, not hit military targets.

It is true that more accurate missiles are in existence, but even a concentrated shower of advanced missiles could not bring Israel to its knees. For one thing, its military industry is now developing the Arrow missile—an SDI project assigned to Israel with mostly American financing—which promises to be an effective defense against surface-to-surface missiles. Yet if Israel were standing alone, it would not depend only on defensive measures. Israel has always preferred and will probably continue to prefer preemptive measures. Had the IDF been free to deal with the Iraqi Scuds, it is doubtful that 39 missiles would have reached Israel. In any case, what is quite certain is that with Scuds alone Iraq could never have conquered even relatively defenseless Kuwait, let alone Israel.

On the other hand, had Israel relinquished the “territories,” as its own peace camp and the various American administrations since 1968 have urged, Saddam Hussein would not have been limited to ineffectual missile attacks from remote bases in Western Iraq. The whole land mass from the Iranian border to the outskirts of Tel Aviv would have become Saddam-land. The mostly Palestinian population of Jordan, like the inhabitants of the territories (as well as some Israeli Arabs), were openly and enthusiastically pro-Saddam. In some cases they actively spied for Iraq. Had Israel withdrawn from the territories, the new Palestinian state which would inevitably have been formed there and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (assuming it had not yet been taken over by the new Palestinian state) would have welcomed Saddam Hussein with open arms.

Nor could Israel, no longer in a commanding strategic position on the Judea-Samaria mountains and the Jordan river, have deterred such a move. Moreover, with Saddam controlling the whole area and threatening Syria’s southern flank, the chances of Syria joining the anti-Saddam coalition rather than the Eastern front against Israel would have been slim indeed. Even if the Iraqi army would not have reached Israel’s borders in force, missiles from the Samarian mountains, eight miles from Tel Aviv’s center, could have caused devastating civilian casualties, scored direct hits on military targets, and paralyzed movement on Israel’s roads.

To claim, as some doves do, that a Palestinian state in the territories would have been safely “demilitarized” is to ignore another lesson of the Gulf War: that mobile missiles can escape the scrutiny of the most sophisticated satellites and spy planes. Even if no missiles would have been introduced into the new state, the mere presence of Arab electronic command-and-control centers in those mountains could have rendered the Scuds more effective. Nor could there have been any way to prevent the launching of terrorist operations from the new state, which the IDF-imposed curfew in the territories during the war effectively forestalled.

Of course, the first sign of hostilities would have prompted Israel to launch its own preemptive strike. But then war with the Eastern-front countries—Iraq, Syria, and Jordan—and perhaps an even wider regional conflagration would have been inevitable, and it would have begun with enemy toops in positions commanding 80 percent of Israel’s population and 60 percent of its industry.

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It was this realization of “what would have happened if . . .” which constituted the second shock of the Gulf War. It was, naturally, more of a shock to the peace camp than to hawks who had always been persuaded that withdrawal from the territories was reckless if not suicidal. But the display of sweeping Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein and of unmitigated hatred for Israelis, the dancing on the roofs when Scuds landed in Tel Aviv and Haifa, the jingle sung by Arabs throughout the territories and in some areas in Israel (“O Saddam, dear Saddam, drown Tel Aviv with chemicals”), and the mindless bravado of the Palestinian man-in-the-street (“I don’t care if the chemicals kill me and my family as long as they kill the Israelis”) startled even the most cynical.

The doves had to agree with right-winger MK Geula Cohen’s observation that had it not been for Israel’s presence in the territories, the dancers on the roofs would have employed Katyushas, not jingles. One peace-camp leader, MK Yossi Sarid, who soon after the invasion of Kuwait and the PLO’s declaration of support for Saddam Hussein wrote a scathing diatribe against the Palestinian leadership suggesting a suspension of contacts—a “don’t call me, I’ll call you” separation—now wrote an even sharper rebuke, amounting to a bill of divorcement. And when Sari Nusseibeh, the mild-mannered “moderate” pro-PLO leader in Jerusalem, was arrested for spying and the Israeli government was bombarded with protests from the Bush administration and the Israeli Left, Sarid—who was privy to the details of the case—uncharacteristically defended the government’s action. “I would sentence him to ten years,” he said. The peace-camp romance with the PLO seemed to be over.

That Sarid was the first of the peace-camp leaders to disavow the PLO was not surprising. Unlike many of his fellow doves, he never had any illusions about what the Arabs wanted. He acknowledged years ago what most doves are admitting only now: that “territorial compromise”—the partitioning of the territories as intended by the Allon plan (which would leave a quarter of the West Bank in Israel’s hands)—is an empty slogan. What the world community and the administration mean by “territories for peace”—regardless of the language of UN Resolution 242, which pointedly mentions “territories,” not the territories or all territories, and regardless of the fact that the Camp David accords were in any event supposed to supersede 242—is Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 lines with minor adjustments. The Bush administration seems to hold the view that only the fate of East Jerusalem and the Old City is negotiable; although it considers them part of the West Bank, it may advocate a compromise to accommodate Jewish access to the Western Wall.

Officially, the Labor party still promotes the Allon plan, but its doves now realize that no Arab leader would be able to accept only three-quarters of the West Bank and live. (During the 1988 election campaign, Labor presented a modification of the Allon plan known as the “generals’ plan,” devised by leading generals turned Labor politicians. It provided for the stationing of IDF troops in the Jordan valley, and early-warning-station installations in the Samarian mountains. The notion that any Arab would accept such an arrangement, or that Israeli soldiers on the Jordan river could survive wedged between a Palestinian “entity” and Jordan, was so preposterous that the plan became a campaign liability.)

Most Israelis would be willing to exchange some territory for peace. Few, for example, would object to relinquishing Gaza or Jericho. But since no peace arrangement can realistically be expected in exchange for parts of the territories, the choice is between withdrawing to the 1967 lines and keeping control of all the territories. Moreover, despite the lip-service paid by the Bush administration to the right of Jews to live anywhere they wish, the implementation of “territories for peace” would mean that the 100,000 settlers in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and perhaps even the 150,000 Jewish residents of Jerusalem suburbs beyond the Green Line, would have to be forcibly “transferred.” Clearly, their safety under Arab rule could not be assured, nor would they want to live in an Arab state.

Sarid also realized long ago that Israel’s departure from the territories meant the establishment not of a Palestinian “homeland,” not of a confederated district of Jordan, but of a sovereign Palestinian state. Before the Gulf crisis, virtually all Israeli doves believed they could live peacefully with such a state. Now the “dancing on the roofs” has made some among them wonder if a state dominated by the PLO and the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas and situated within rifle range of Israel’s largest population centers would be an ideal solution after all.

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Not that the doves have abandoned the idea of relinquishing the territories. They are still convinced that ruling over 1.5 million Arabs is morally untenable, ruinous to Israel’s soul, harmful to its political and social fabric, and unacceptable to the world at large. But since the prospect of a Palestinian state now seems riskier than before, such moderate peace-camp leaders as MK Amnon Rubenstein, head of the Shinui (“change”) party, and Labor MK Shevah Weiss now recommend entering a defense treaty with the United States and accepting American—and perhaps international—guarantees.

This coincides rather nicely with the thinking of the Bush administration, intent on having a permanent military presence in the area and establishing a Pax Americana in collaboration with its coalition partners. These partners have assured Secretary Baker that once Israel settles the “Palestinian problem”—i.e., withdraws to the 1967 lines—they would consider recognizing Israel and making peace. American guarantees, they say, should allay Israel’s fears for its security. The administration, impatient with the lack of progress in the “peace process,” may be persuaded that “territories for peace” plus “guarantees” is indeed the only available option, and pressure Israel accordingly.

One need not doubt America’s good intentions toward Israel to be wary of relying on the U.S. as a guarantor. For while relinquishing land is permanent, circumstances, policies, and personalities which affect relations between the two countries are changeable. And experience shows that the U.S. is no less prone than any other country to giving its interests precedence over its signed commitments—even where Israel is concerned.

For example, it is difficult to recall—now that the IDF is equipped with American weapon systems and Israel receives billions in American aid—that an American arms embargo almost doomed the state at its inception; or that an American promise to supply Israel with arms was broken in 1955 in response to a retaliatory Israeli raid against terrorist infiltrators. And those who imagine that the Likud governments have carried U.S.-Israel relations to a new low may want to remember that the 1956 Sinai campaign brought not only a suspension by the Eisenhower administration of all talk of economic aid; the U.S. also threatened then to support UN sanctions, including the expulsion of Israel from the world organization, to block all United Jewish Appeal contributions, and to tolerate a Soviet assault on Israel without intervening.

When Israel then gave up all the territories taken in that campaign, the U.S. agreed to guarantee that Egypt would not return to the Gaza Strip, but soon reneged on this commitment. Before the 1967 war, the U.S. “could not find” Eisenhower’s written commitment to Ben-Gurion to secure free navigation in the Tiran straits. (Egypt’s blockade of the straits precipitated the Six-Day War.) After the war, though Israel’s popularity rose to unprecedented heights, the Johnson administration suspended all arms shipments, including spare parts, in violation of signed contracts. (This was not done as punishment, but in the hope that such suspension would induce the Soviets to slow arms deliveries to Syria and Egypt.) Then in 1975, when Israel hesitated to sign an interim agreement with Egypt, the U.S. announced a “reassessment” of relations and again suspended all arms deliveries. Similar sanctions were imposed after Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.

To be sure, all these events are dwarfed by America’s steadfast friendship, military and economic assistance, and often unique political backing of Israel. Nevertheless it is foolhardy to assume that it would always seem to be in America’s national interest to guarantee Israel’s security, to sacrifice treasure, let alone blood, to defend a small, oil-less, and strategically crippled Israel. Even if the U.S. wished to do so, it is doubtful that circumstances would always allow it to rescue Israel in time. It is far more likely that what Golda Meir once said in response to an offer of guarantees—“By the time you get here, we won’t be here”—would prove as prophetic as it did in the case of Kuwait.

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Has the Gulf crisis, then, brought a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to its offshoot, the Palestinian problem, no closer?

On the one hand, it may well be that, as in other festering world trouble spots—from Kashmir to Northern Ireland—there simply is no solution in sight. The democratic West, impatient with insolubles, finds it difficult to face such a possibility—particularly since in the case of Israel it is incessantly prodded by an Arab colossus, which is not only an indispensable energy source for the industrial countries but a huge marketplace for their goods, to convene an international conference and impose an Arab solution. Fearing Arab economic power, the West acts toward Arab regimes with mind-boggling timorousness. Throughout the Gulf crisis, the U.S. and its Western allies treated the demands of the Arab coalition partners as if Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates were the benefactors, not the beneficiaries, of Desert Shield and Desert Storm; as if Arab lives were being risked to defend the West and not the other way around.

But, on the other hand, the Gulf War did seem to produce some new thinking. The administration has conceded that there have to be two tracks (one involving state-to-state negotiations and the other involving negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians) to the peace process, as envisaged by the Shamir plan of May 1989, rather than an independent Palestinian solution first, as demanded by the Arab states. Saddam Hussein proved that Israel’s fear of unpredictable Arab violence and aggression was a symptom not of paranoia but of realism, and that concessions by Israel which might compromise its strategic position would be reckless so long as danger existed from Arab countries like Iraq. (What the administration did not seem to concede was that in removing the Iraqi danger it eliminated, temporarily, only one of Israel’s major enemies. Others, like Syria and Libya, are no less implacable and certainly no less dangerous.)

Realizing that peace negotiations between the Arab states and Israel were not yet in the cards, the administration endorsed the idea, favored by Israel, of pursuing incremental confidence-building measures. Indeed, Israel has always believed in “normalization” as the surest way to peace. Thus, although there is no peace treaty with Jordan, Israel has kept the bridges on the Jordan river open. The only people who cannot use them are Israeli Jews. Israeli Arabs and Arab inhabitants of the territories can freely travel in both directions, as can hundreds of thousands of citizens of Arab countries at war with Israel who come to visit friends and relatives. One can even find Saudi patients in Israeli hospitals.

But only Israel has made these gestures. Even Egypt, bound by a formal peace treaty with Israel, has not agreed to normalize relations. Tourism and trade are still mostly a one-way affair. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have visited Egypt, despite the murders of Israeli diplomats and tourists there, yet the Egyptians allow only a select few to visit Israel. And while Israel buys Egyptian oil and other goods, there is very little trade in the other direction. Nor is there a softening of virulently anti-Israel Egyptian propaganda. As soon as the Gulf War was over, Egypt’s government newspaper Al Ahram compared Shamir to Saddam Hussein.

In other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, laws against Jews are more egregious than the Nazi Nuremberg laws. Jews are proscribed from taking up residence in either of these countries, and Jordanian law mandates the death penalty for selling land to Jews, not only in Jordan but in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

But the most harmful of the anti-Israel measures taken by the Arab countries is the boycott. First imposed in 1948, it is yet another living refutation of the thesis that peace depends on a return to the status quo ante 1967. As recently as July 1990, Kuwait and Iraq participated, at the request of the PLO, in an emergency session of the boycott committee in Damascus to expand the boycott to companies involved in Soviet-Jewish immigration to Israel.

The main harm has come not from “primary” boycotts, such as the refusal of all major Japanese companies, including even Japan Air Lines, to deal with Israel, but from secondary effects. Having extraordinary scientific and technological capabilities, Israel could have been a magnet for international venture capital. But large investment companies fear that whatever they might gain by investing in Israel would be more than offset by losses of Arab business. By making investments in Israel and commerce between Israel and the Arab states possible, the removal of the boycott would benefit the whole region. Even more than the signing of peace treaties, it would be a measure most likely to build mutual confidence and attenuate tensions.

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If nothing else, the Gulf War should have put the value of treaties in the Middle East into proper perspective. A nonaggression pact between Iraq and Iran did not deter Iraq from launching an eight-year-long bloody war. And Kuwait’s friendly relations with Iraq and its munificent support of Iraq’s war effort against Iran did not spare it when Saddam Hussein decided to invade. Nor did the fact that both are Arab countries ameliorate the savagery of the occupation. The brutalities of the Kuwait occupation—surpassed only by the barbarism of the internecine fighting in Lebanon—are endemic to the region. They should have been instructive to those who believe accommodating Palestinian demands for a state in the 2,500 square miles of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza will bring stability to the region.

The war should have also taught the world something about the way reality is perceived in the Middle East. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov has told how in the war with Iran, the Iraqis actually believed their own canards about being the invaded rather than the invaders. Similarly, the world watched incredulously as Saddam Hussein convinced himself and other Arabs that he would defeat the coalition armies. So, too, Palestinian Arabs, exposed to as much CNN and other Western reporting as anyone, nevertheless believed that Bush was forced into a cease-fire by Iraqi victories, and that the coalition suffered tens of thousands of casualties. Nothing seems to have changed since 1967, when Palestinians in East Jerusalem, who could see the Jewish part of the city with their own eyes, chose to accept Egyptian reports of Israeli cities going up in flames. The Arabs’ ability to be swept by their own propaganda despite the communications revolution does not bode well for their acceptance of Israel’s reality.

Now that Saddam has shown that Middle Eastern dreams of grandeur can threaten the economies of the industrial nations, some observers suggest that the concerted efforts of the coalition in war can be translated into an international arms embargo—particularly of nonconventional weapons—on dictatorial regimes in the region. Since the European Community—not to mention the Communist countries—has not only armed every dictatorship in the region with every available weapon system but has embargoed all arms shipments to the only democracy in the area—to the point of refusing to sell children’s gas masks to Israel in 1989—the idea seems utopian indeed. And even if all weapon manufacturers, including the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, decided to join such an agreement—a most unlikely scenario—it would be impossible to prevent rich clients from acquiring arms on the world market. Embargoes and restrictions would only make the arms more expensive.

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What then can be done to prevent the rise of another Saddam Hussein and bring real hope for peace in the region? The concept of a New World Order in the Middle East was inspired by the anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe, which made anything seem possible. And, indeed, the triumph of democratic ideals—which until the 80’s were in retreat throughout the world—was breathtaking. But their success would not have been possible without Western encouragement and active support. Neither Walesa nor Havel nor Sakharov could have survived, let alone thrived, without Western insistence on linking political and economic relations to human rights, liberalization, and democratization.

Clearly, the very fact of democratization in Eastern Europe has gone far to remove the danger of war. In the modern era democracies have not attacked each other, nor are they likely to. If the Arab countries become true democracies instead of dictatorships which assume and retain power through violence and brutality, there will be hope for peace.

But will the West condition, say, normalization of relations and economic aid to Syria not only on the release of a few hostages but on real liberalization? Will it insist that Saudi Arabia abandon feudalism? Since the West—still underestimating the dependency of oil producers on Western stability and prosperity—perceives itself a hostage to Arab oil, it may not have the courage to do in the Middle East what it did in Eastern Europe.

Still, in acting as they did in the Gulf, both the American and British governments—and particularly President Bush—surprised the world with their inordinate courage and determination. Perhaps they will now have the courage to realize that seeking a Middle East solution by pressuring Israel to make concessions, instead of by pressing for changes in the Arab world, is like searching for a coin where there is light rather than where it is lost. Such a search may have its moments as the light and shadows play tricks with one’s imagination. But it will not produce the coin.

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