Twelve years ago, during the Gulf War, Israel was attacked but did not respond. For the first time in Israel's history, after being hit (by 39 Iraqi Scud missiles), it turned the other cheek. There is good reason to hope that such an attack will not occur again. In the face of an impending U.S. assault on Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, there has been increasing speculation regarding Israel's response if it were to be attacked again. It must be emphasized that circumstances are entirely different this time, and the probability of Israel's being attacked if the U.S. goes ahead with its battle plans is extremely small, so that the discussion of what Israel's response should be is pretty much academic. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a look back.
In Israeli mythology the restraint shown by Israel during the Gulf War is already enshrined as the height of statesmanship and political wisdom, and some even consider it an example to be emulated in the future. However, a thorough look at the circumstances prevailing during the five weeks of war and missile attacks on Israel is likely to lead to the opposite conclusion.
There were four good reasons not to respond to Iraqi aggression against Israel when the first Scuds hit Israel. Firstly, then-president Bush Sr. had painstakingly put together a coalition of countries that participated in the assault on Iraq. That coalition included Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. At the time it was considered that Israeli involvement in the war might lead to fracturing the coalition and upsetting U.S. battle plans, that reducing the Iraqi military capability also served Israel's interest. An Israeli military response would have involved overflying a neighboring Arab country by the Israel Air Force, possibly bringing about a military conflict with it, and thus increasing the danger to Bush's coalition. Second, the Bush administration adamantly refused any operational coordination between the IDF and U.S. forces. Third, the intelligence information on Iraq, and especially on western Iraq from where the Scuds were being launched against Israel, that was available to Israel at the outbreak of the war was very meager, and the Bush administration showed little enthusiasm to supply such intelligence to Israel. And, fourth, there was the risk to Israel's soldiers fighting so far from their home bases. There was also an undercurrent of hope that operations by U.S. aircrafts over Iraq would put an end to the Iraqi missile attacks and that the U.S.-supplied Patriot anti-aircraft missiles would successfully intercept incoming Scuds. Those hopes gradually disintegrated as the war progressed.
But as time went by, the above considerations became weaker day by day, so that by the war's third week, the case for an Israeli military response had become very strong. By that time, after almost three weeks of intensive bombardment by the Allied air forces of Iraq without encountering any significant resistance, it was clear to all that the U.S. was heading for a major victory, and the coalition was going to hold no matter what. After persistent Israeli demands, the U.S. was prepared to make good on the assurances given Israel prior to the war that if U.S. forces were unable to stop the Scud attacks against Israel, the U.S. would "stand down" west of an agreed longitude so as to clear the area for an Israeli military operation.
By bits and pieces, some intelligence information on western Iraq had been supplied, and since the Iraqi air-defense system and most of its air force had by this time been destroyed or escaped to Iran, the danger of an operation in western Iraq had significantly decreased. Such an operation had been planned by the IDF, submitted by the General Staff for approval to the defense minister, and so been approved. The main reason why the operation was not carried out was that President Bush peremptorily declared a cease-fire during the fifth week of the war.
Whether the operation would have been approved by the Cabinet chaired by the prime minister Yitzhak Shamir is not clear.
The absence of an Israeli response to Iraqi aggression against this country, no doubt, caused some damage to Israel's deterrent image in the Arab world. "Don't fool with us!" had been Israel's message to Arab countries hostile to Israel. That message was somewhat diluted 12 years ago.
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