The Historical Mistake Is Happening Now

"From a historical perspective, Israel made a mistake when it did not retaliate for the Scuds in the first Gulf War," claimed Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in a weekend TV interview. "There was an erosion of our deterrent capabilities," he added. The defense minister at the time of the first Gulf War, Moshe Arens, joined that analysis (Haaretz, March 17), writing that "the absence of an Israeli response to Iraqi aggression against Israel, doubtlessly caused some damage to Israel's deterrent image in the Arab world. `Don't mess with us!' had been Israel's message to Arab countries hostile to Israel. That message was somewhat diluted 12 years ago."

However, while Arens, who tried to push the government to decide on an Israeli military reaction in 1991 and failed, can only regret that failure, the current defense minister wants to correct the historical error. "As far as it is dependent on me, that won't repeat itself," he clarified. "We will know how to defend the State of Israel, including the use of offensive operations."

Considering the composition of the policy makers in the current government, it doesn't seem like anyone will obstruct the defense minister's "rehabilitation" of Israel's damaged deterrence. Instead of Yitzhak Shamir, who stood like a wall against Arens and the army's top brass, who were hungry for action and demanded a military retaliation for the Scuds, Ariel Sharon now heads the government.

Already six months ago during a visit to Washington, Sharon told senior officials in the American administration "Israel's decision not to respond in 1991 damaged its ability to deter an enemy attack." Besides, "the Israeli public will demand a reaction if Iraq attacks." In the wake of that visit, administration officials leaked to The New York Times that Sharon explained to the president's advisers, "Israel will respond in all cases to an Iraqi attack."

Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, who displayed his worldview in an interview two weeks ago in Ma'ariv, has joined the Sharon-Mofaz "axis." It turns out that the chief of staff and defense minister not only think alike, they even use the exact same words. "We, as an army, need to be prepared to defend ourselves, and part of that defense is the offensive capability," he explained.

Thus, the three people with the exclusive authority to decide with complete autonomy, without any minister or MK daring to challenge their decisions, are convinced that if Iraq strikes at Israel, Israel must respond and use the army.

The problem is that Sharon, Mofaz and Ya'alon intend to rehabilitate something that was not damaged, and it's actually their comments and actions that could lead to the damaging of Israel's deterrent capabilities. Not only wasn't deterrence damaged in 1991, it proved itself as effective. In any case it was impossible to deter Saddam Hussein from launching missiles at Israel. He explicitly announced he planned to hit Israel so that it would respond, which would lead to the break-up of the coalition the Americans pieced together at the time.

Therefore, all the declarations by Israeli leaders in the political and military echelon, that if Saddam dares attack Tel Aviv he'll feel the fist of the IDF, were exactly what the Iraqi ruler hoped for. Indeed, Saddam sent his missiles, but made sure they had conventional payloads. Despite owning chemical warheads, he did not use them for fear of an unconventional Israeli retaliation. His own son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, who deserted to Jordan after the Gulf war, buttressed that assessment, saying that Saddam decided not to use his chemical payloads for fear of a strategic Israeli response.

The danger in the simplistic thinking of those who believe all the problems facing Israel can be solved with military force - such as Sharon, Mofaz and Ya'alon - is that they do not pause to consider the complexity of the concept of deterrence and the ramifications of hasty decisions that lead to the use of military power. Not in every case in which a country refrains from a military reaction is there damage to its deterrent capabilities.

Sometimes, restraint signifies strength and self-confidence in military power. Israel deterred its enemies after it did not retaliate in the Gulf War. It deters the rulers in the region after the withdrawal from Lebanon and even after two-and-a-half years of not always successful fighting against Palestinian terrorism. It's nearly certain that Mofaz, who sees intelligence information that analyzes the perceptions of Israel in the minds of regional leaders, is aware of this. But when professional, objective and reasoned analysis is replaced by the desire for revenge and punishment, and the need to soothe "the public's feelings of frustration and rage," there is no choice but a military reaction if Iraqi missiles are fired at Israel, irrespective of the damage they cause. This does not strengthen deterrence, but signals a loss of self-confidence by the defense establishment's leaders.

This doesn't contradict the possibility - or even the need - for retaliation after a chemical attack by Iraq that would break all the rules of the game between Israel and its neighbors. But why does the defense minister have to declare Israel will respond in any case. After all, if there is a decision to refrain from retaliation, because of certain political conditions or because the damage was minimal, Mofaz's statements will do a lot of damage to the credibility if Israel's deterrence.

The historical mistake the defense minister was speaking about, did not take place in 1991. It is happening now, and Shaul Mofaz is responsible for it.