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Should Israel Retaliate if Attacked? Rift Looms As Talk of War Increases

September 25, 2002
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A disagreement is surfacing between the United States and Israel over whether the Jewish state should retaliate if attacked by Iraq during an American-led war.

For months, as talk of U.S. action against Iraq intensified, Israeli officials have said Israel cannot hold its fire if attacked by Iraq, as it did when showered with Iraqi missiles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Coupled with those statements was the view that the Bush administration understood and would allow Israel to retaliate.

In the last week, however — as talk of war increasingly occupies the international community — U.S. officials have been asking Israel to just sit tight if attacked.

Asked Sept. 18 if the United States should restrain Israel during a war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee that Israel should hold its fire even if attacked.

There is “no doubt in mind but that it would be in Israel’s overwhelming best interest not to get involved,” Rumsfeld said. He reiterated the comments to the Senate the next day.

Secretary of State Colin Powell deflected similar questions from Congress. Powell said he felt Israel’s 1991 decision not to fire back — made under intense U.S. pressure — “was the correct one.”

He added that the Bush administration was “thinking about” available contingencies if Iraq again tried to draw Israel into the hostilities.

The United States would “be in the closest consultation with our Israeli friends and colleagues,” Powell told the House International Relations Committee on Sept. 19. “Both Vice President Cheney and I have experience in dealing with this question and this problem, and I think we would know how to deal with it again.”

The Bush administration is telling Israel the same thing privately, administration officials said.

“That he actually feels this way is not shocking,” one U.S. analyst said of Rumsfeld’s comments. “What is shocking is that he is saying it publicly.”

The main U.S. concern, emphasized by lawmakers on Sunday talk shows last weekend, is that Israeli involvement could turn Arab countries against the U.S. effort or even escalate the conflict into a general Arab-Israeli war.

While the Bush administration is hoping to win Arab acquiescence to an attack on Iraq — as well as permission to use military bases in the Arab world — some fear that an Israeli retaliatory attack against Iraq would move the Arab states from bystanders to active combatants against Israel.

The U.S. stance is “about building a coalition, but it’s also about preventing a coalition against” the United States, one Jewish official said.

But the administration’s statements have rattled the Israeli government.

On the one hand, Israel hopes the U.S. battle plan will include measures to undermine Iraq’s ability to attack Israel.

But many Israeli officials see the decision not to respond to the Iraqi attack in 1991 as a grievous strategic error that undermined Israel’s deterrent power and emboldened Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups to attack the Jewish state.

While Israel hopes to stay out of the war entirely, Israeli officials also hope the United States will support Israel’s need to respond if it is attacked.

“If attacked unprovoked, Saddam Hussein cannot presume that we will automatically repeat the restraint we exercised in 1991,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

At the same time, Israeli officials also note that the country is not on automatic pilot, and that decisions about retaliation will be made on a case-by-case basis.

The calculation also would depend on the provocation: A different response would be considered if an Iraqi missile landed harmlessly in the Negev Desert than if chemical warheads hit Tel Aviv.

Some analysts are concerned that Bush’s comments will lead to perceptions that Israel is weak.

“It sends the wrong signal to Baghdad,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s perhaps implying that the U.S. could seek to restrain Israel if it is attacked by Iraq,” making Israel seem like a U.S. pawn.

But is that the case? More likely, some analysts note, is that U.S. planners realize Israeli retaliation would be largely symbolic — there is little Israel could add if the United States already were leading a massive war effort — and therefore not worth the diplomatic risk.

What the episode has revealed is the divergence of interests between the United States and Israel.

The United States, which seeks to gain at least Arab acquiescence to an attack on a fellow Arab regime, is “trying to tell the Arabs that this is not a U.S.-Israeli production,” one analyst said.

Israel would welcome the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whom it regards as a sworn enemy, but it also believes it important to show strength after its passivity in 1991. Several Israeli officials have expressed concern that holding fire a decade later would show an undue reliance on the United States.

There also may be political considerations: Not responding might prove detrimental to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is mindful of a potential challenge from the more hawkish former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

And hawks note that after Israel sheltered beneath U.S. wings during the Gulf War, it did not receive a reward for its restraint. Instead it was forced, against the wishes of its government, to take part in the Madrid peace conference as the United States tried to mend fences in the Arab world.

This time, they say, Israel would do well to emphasize its independence.

Yet the tiff is considered far less serious than the one between Israel and the United States during the Gulf War, when the first President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir went months without speaking to each other.

“To speculate right now about whether or not Israel will retaliate to an Iraqi attack is not constructive,” said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “It is our hope that Israel will not be attacked, that Israel will not be put in that situation.”

Many Middle East analysts anticipate that the United States will formulate attack plans against Iraq designed to minimize the possibility of a strike against Israel.

Labor Party legislator Colette Avital, who was in Washington last week to meet with lawmakers, said she believes the best course of action is a pre-emptive strike in the western part of Iraq, hitting bases from which Saddam could launch missiles against Israel.

Similarly, when he testified before Congress on Sept. 12, Netanyahu said he believes the United States could substantially reduce the risk to Israel through preventive action.

That might include giving Israel advance warning of an American attack or helping Israel to innoculate its population against biological agents.

“We have to assume that he’ll fire the missiles,” Netanyahu said of Saddam before the House of Representatives’ Government Reform Committee. “We cannot assume that we’ll intercept all the missiles. And we cannot assume that the warheads will not distribute chemical and, what is worse, biological material. So we must take all the precautions.”

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