Israel has notified the United States that it cannot afford to practice the same kind of restraint it demonstrated in the Gulf War in 1991 in the event of another Iraqi attack - even if there are no casualties, Ha'aretz has learned.
The Americans empathized with the Israeli position, but said that if there are no casualties, Israel should make do with a symbolic response.
Israel and the U.S. have not yet held systematic consultations in preparation for a possible American attack on Iraq, that would be designed to change the regime there. However, the question of Israel's intervention in the war has been discussed in various meetings, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has told U.S. President George W. Bush that if Israel is attacked, it will respond.
According to senior Israeli sources, the U.S. would prefer for Israel to stay out, and will therefore do its utmost to keep Iraq from attacking Israel.
In 1991, the U.S. led a coalition that included several Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. The Americans believed that if Israel responds to an Iraqi attack, the coalition would fall apart. This time America does not have Arab and European support from the outset, but Washington is still concerned that even the appearances of collaboration with Israel would badly affect its relations with Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Israel's defense establishment still has no clear data about the American plans. The working assumption is that the U.S. will not attack Iraq before the end of the year. The IDF is now perfecting the mechanisms that will be used if and when the war starts - early warning, home front command (distribution of gas masks and vaccines) and aerial defense (including the Arrow antitactical ballistic missile and the air force).
The Air Force has already started deploying Arrow missile batteries near Hadera for a two-week drill. Military sources maintain that the timing of the current drill is not directly related to the expected American attack in Iraq. Sources in the Air Force told Ha'aretz that this deployment was planned a long time ago, and is designed to get the forces accustomed with the equipment and the terrain so that in case of emergency, everything would go smoothly.
Senior sources in the defense establishment said yesterday they were expecting a 72-hour warning before the American attack, although Israel has asked the U.S. to warn it a week ahead of time.
"We do not have an automatic response for every given scenario, but the very statement that Israel will respond this time is important for deterrence," the sources said. If America allows Israel to respond, tight coordination will be required. In 1991, the Americans refused to give Israel the codes that would have enabled the Israeli air force to fly to and operate in Iraq without crashing into American aircraft.
Outgoing chief of the Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, told Channel One TV this weekend that an American attack on Iraq would weaken Palestinian motivation to clash with Israel. The Palestinians depend to a great extent on Iraqi support, and any injury to Iraq would therefore cut into Palestinian resources as well.
But Amos Malka, the former head of military intelligence, told Israel Radio on Sunday morning that he did not believe an attack on Iraq would have a decisive effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Malka said that while the Americans had taken a strategic decision to attack Iraq, the exact timing was still unclear. "The timing is connected to Europe, the Arab states and the United Nations, as well as to strategic issues and the desire to have some element of surprise," Malka said.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer tried over the weekend to assure the public that there was no need for panic with regard to a possible U.S. attack on Iraq and that Israel had never been better prepared for a possible strike by Saddam. There were sufficient gas masks in the country for all the public and the anti-missile Arrow and Patriot batteries had all been deployed, he said.