JERUSALEM (Dec. 24)
Israeli leaders are taking pains to reassure the world that Israel is not planning a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, despite Saddam Hussein’s threat Sunday to launch a missile attack on Tel Aviv if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf.
At the same time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Foreign Minister David Levy issued statements calculated to calm public fears here.
Hussein said in an interview on Spanish television that Tel Aviv would be the first target of Iraqi missiles if hostilities broke out.
“We are not panicked by such statements, but we regard the threat with all seriousness,” Shamir told reporters Monday during a visit to the Beit She’an Valley. “One cannot tell what that man might do.”
He said that chances of war in the Persian Gulf are greater now than ever before and warned that if Israel were hit, it would strike back with all of its power.
Arens disclosed that the Israel Defense Force is on a higher state of alert than normally would be the case.
The reassurances beamed abroad that Israel will not initiate a first strike followed reports that President Bush had received pledges from his Arab coalition partners that they would not abandon the anti-Iraq coalition in the event of an unprovoked Iraqi attack against Israel.
According to analysts, that means that if the United States could demonstrate to Syria and Egypt that Hussein embroiled Israel in the conflict without provocation, they would stand firm behind the U.S.-led coalition in subsequent hostilities with Iraq.
ATTEMPT TO DRIVE WEDGE IN COALITION
That delicate issue is believed to have been discussed at length by Bush and Shamir when they met in Washington earlier this month, and the two reportedly reached an understanding.
For the United States, it is crucial to maintain unity against attempts by Hussein to drive a wedge into the coalition by disguising the Persian Gulf conflict as an Iraqi-Israeli war.
From Israel’s perspective, the IDF must be able to respond instantly to an Iraqi strike with-out regard to how it will affect the U.S.-led campaign to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Israeli leaders and generals have hinted that Baghdad and other targets would suffer devastating blows, particularly if an Iraqi first strike employed unconventional weapons.
But there are two possible scenarios that could keep Israel out of war despite Iraqi efforts to drag it into one.
If the Iraqi strike against Israel were more symbolic than strategic, designed to impress the Arabs rather than hurt Israel severely, Israel might be able to hold off its retaliation on the assumption that the American-led coalition was moving into battle.
According to the second scenario, even if the Iraqi strike were painful, Israel might be able to avoid embroilment if an American retaliation were massive and instant.
Meanwhile, the general atmosphere in Israel was increasingly somber this week as the war clouds seemed to darken. Experts were quoted by the news media as saying that the chances of war are growing and the chances of Israel’s involvement are growing, too.
JORDAN WARNED AND REASSURED
Arens, speaking Monday to high-school students in Holon, observed that Israel has only gone to war when it has been attacked, “and that is what will happen in the future.”
He said Iraq has missiles capable of reaching Israel, but they have only limited effectiveness.
The public seems to believe that if there is a war, it would, at least initially, involve the air force rather than the entire IDF.
That calculation arises from the belief that Iraq lacks the strength, in the face of the coalition threat against it, to mount a serious ground attack on Israel across Jordanian territory.
Israel has no contiguous border with Iraq. The two countries are separated by Jordan.
Foreign Minister Levy warned Jordan on Monday not to allow its territory to be used by the Iraqis to attack Israel. He said he hoped the Jordanians know that Israel has no hostile intentions against them.
“On the contrary, Israel has repeatedly stressed its interest in preserving stability in Jordan,” Levy said.
He added that King Hussein must not allow his realm to serve as a bridge for Iraqi hostilities against Israel.