PM Urging U.S. Not to Delay Strike Against Iraq

Israel is pressing the U.S. not to defer action aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. PM Ariel Sharon has sent messages to the U.S. administration in recent days saying that postponing the Iraq operation "will not create a more convenient environment for action in the future."

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Israel is pressing the United States not to defer action aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has sent messages to the U.S. administration in recent days saying that postponing the Iraq operation "will not create a more convenient environment for action in the future." But Sharon added that Israel would support any American action, and would respect U.S. decisions regarding the method and the timing.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres sent a similar message yesterday during an interview with CNN television. "The problem today is not if, but when," he said, adding that while attacking now would be "quite dangerous... postponing it would be more dangerous," as "he [Saddam] will have more weapons."

But like Sharon, Peres also added a disclaimer, saying he did not want to be seen as urging the United States to act and that America should act according to its own judgment. Israel, he said, "will be a good soldier" in the camp led by President George W. Bush.

Sharon has also repeatedly informed Bush that if Iraq were to attack Israel, Israel would respond. During the 1991 Gulf War, the United States effectively prevented Israel from retaliating against Iraqi missile strikes by refusing to give it the "friend-foe" codes required to keep U.S. and Israeli planes from shooting at each other. But in closed discussions recently, Sharon told associates that he had a clear understanding with the United States that this time, if Saddam were to attack, Israel would be allowed to exercise its right to self-defense.

However, he added, the Israeli response would be closely coordinated with the Americans - and, as he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this week, it would not be automatic.

A senior government source explained: "If we are talking about a single missile that falls in the middle of the Arava [Desert], far from the major population centers, or into the sea, it is hard to believe that we will respond."

But if missiles strike Israeli cities, as they did during the Gulf War, Sharon told the committee, "we cannot sit with folded hands."

Asked by CNN whether and how Israel would respond to an Iraqi strike, Peres gave a similar answer, saying the response would depend on the type of attack. Asked what Israel would do if attacked with weapons of mass destruction, Peres said, "I wouldn't commit myself. I don't think I can give you a response. Israel will be very careful and reluctant to go out of the conventional domain of weaponry."

Peres believes that Israel must preserve some room in which to maneuver, but at the same time, it must not say or do anything that would be perceived by the Americans as impeding their war effort.

Senior Israel Defense Forces officers have also told American officials in recent days that Israel must respond if attacked in order to maintain its deterrence, which was badly damaged by Israel's restraint during the Gulf War.

But Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, in contrast, objects vehemently to publicly-voiced Israeli threats against Iraq. He believes that the various media reports in Israel in recent days, indicating that a U.S. attack is near, are exaggerated and create unnecessary tension among the Israeli public, while public threats of an Israeli response merely hurt the American effort.

"We are dependent on the Americans," explained a defense source. "We need their cooperation in intelligence and in giving us prior notice. Our public threats don't help them."

Senior government sources said yesterday that the possibility of an Israeli military response to an Iraqi attack made the U.S. administration very uncomfortable, but for now, it prefered to ignore the Israeli threats rather than deal with the issue directly.

The defense establishment believes that the United States will not attack before the end of the year. It also believes that while Saddam will attack Israel if "pushed into a corner," he does not have many missiles or launchers.

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