News Analysis: U.S. Pledge to Repel Iraqi Attack on Israel Aimed at Warning Baghdad

New assurances of a swift American response to any Iraqi attack on Israel appear to be intended more to deter Saddam Hussein from further military adventures than to calm Israeli fears.

The assurances, which are believed to be the first time the United States has pledged to come to Israel’s aid in the event of a military attack, were offered by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy last Wednesday, when the two leaders met at the United Nations in New York.

They were reiterated the following day to American Jewish leaders at meetings in New York and Washington.

Briefing American reporters in New York, a senior State Department official said Friday that the United States would respond “immediately and forcefully” against Iraq if it attacked Israel. U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf would respond to any aggression, including aggression against Israel, he said.

But the official also acknowledged the message was intended for Iraq more than Israel. He said it was important for Hussein to know the United States would not stand idly by if he embroiled Israel in the Persian Gulf conflict.

A similar interpretation was offered by Yuval Rotem, spokesman for Israel’s Mission to the United Nations.

“The message was aimed at Iraq. The message was not for us,” Rotem said, adding that it was “very significant” for Saddam Hussein to “know where America stands.”

ATTEMPT TO REMOVE ANY DOUBTS

Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Jewish leaders had insisted that the American commitment be stated publicly for the benefit of Iraq.

Reich headed a delegation of 50 members of the conference who met last Thursday with senior State Department officials, White House National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Reich said afterward that “both Scowcroft and Cheney acknowledged that if Saddam got desperate, he might seek to involve Israel to get the Arab nations behind him.”

“The United States cannot be in a position again where it is misunderstood,” Reich said.

He was referring to the perception that Iraq was surprised by the vigorous American response to its invasion of Kuwait.

Rotem declined to say whether the new assurances include a substantive U.S. commitment to send troops to Israel if attacked.

A State Department official said the United States could not give such a guarantee without seeing the exact circumstances surrounding any attack on Israel.

Israel has always stressed it would never ask its American ally for a commitment of troops.

ADDITIONAL MILITARY AID SOUGHT

While Israel and its supporters appear to be pleased by the Baker assurances, they would like to see it backed up with additional U.S. military aid for Israel.

Reich said that while the Conference of Presidents is pleased by the administration’s intention to maintain Israel’s qualitative military superiority, it is “uneasy about the inability of the administration to indicate a full commitment to give Israel its shopping list (of weapons) for the immediate future.”

Douglas Bloomfield, a Washington consultant and former legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, called the Baker assurances disappointingly vague.

“There’s no indication that the Israelis got anything more than vague assurances at a time when they sorely need concrete commitments and tangible assistance,” he said.

Another pro-Israel activist on Capitol Hill had a similar response: “It doesn’t replace an F-16. If America is committed to Israel’s security, it should send some F-15s or F-16s.”

Pentagon officials reportedly were taken aback when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens requested earlier this month nearly $1 billion in additional military aid for Israel.

But a Bush administration official said “something will be done” for Israel before Congress adjourns in mid-October.

A Capitol Hill source said the arms being considered include 15 F-15 fighter planes and two Patriot missile batteries.

(JTA correspondent Allison Kaplan at the United Nations contributed to this report.)

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