JERUSALEM — AS Iraqi President Saddam Hussein issues ever fiercer threats against Israel, government leaders here are caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has promised publicly to maintain Israel's ``low profile'' policy, pledging to do all he can to keep his country out of the Gulf crisis.
On the other, some officials here say they expect Baghdad to do everything possible to involve Israel, and worry especially about Iraqi missiles, against which there is little defense.
``Would you absorb an Iraqi missile attack for the sake of holding the US coalition together?'' an official asks rhetorically.
Saddam warned in an interview with Spanish television Sunday that Tel Aviv would be his first target should United States troops attack his men in Kuwait. This was the strongest threat he had made against Israel.
Expert opinion here is divided over whether to believe Saddam's words. Some defense analysts, both in and out of government, fear he might strike at Israel either in retaliation for a US assault, out of desperation to score political points in the Arab world if he felt on the verge of defeat, or ``because [Saddam] considers us part and parcel of the coalition'' arrayed against him, as Eli Ben-Elizar, chairman of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Relations Committee, put it.
Others say the Iraqi leader is far too shrewd to unnecessarily open a second front in the west while trying to cope with a massive US assault from the south.
``I simply cannot see what reason [the Iraqis] would have to do it,'' argues Maj. Gen. Shlomo Gazit, a reserve officer now working with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. ``It would put them in a much worse position militarily because, of all the coalition except the US, we are Iraq's most dangerous enemy.''
Mr. Shamir has warned Iraq that Israel's response to any Iraqi strike would be ``devastating.'' ``Whoever will dare to attack us will be attacked seven times over,'' he said Monday.
But Israeli Army chiefs are planning for the worst, ``working on the assumption that war in the Gulf will break out, and considering all the implications for Israel,'' as Gen. Dan Shomron, the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, put it last week.
The Air Force has been on high alert since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait; Army reservists are undergoing refresher courses; and the military has stepped up orders to stockpile spare parts, General Gazit says.
Missiles are real threat
Although officials are confident that Israeli air defenses are more than a match for any Iraqi air attack, Iraqi missiles are a different matter.
``The chances of Iraqi aircraft getting through and doing any damage are very, very small,'' says Dore Gold, a security analyst at the Jaffee Center. ``But missiles at present are unstoppable. The only thing you could do is hit them before they are launched.''
Israeli intelligence officials believe Iraq has positioned scores of missile launchers in western Iraq capable of striking Israeli targets. Both Al Hussein missiles and Al Abbas models have been adapted from Soviet Scuds to give them longer range by reducing their payload. Whether they are armed with chemical warheads or high explosive, however, is a matter of dispute.
``The missiles in western Iraq have only one preoccupation: Israel,'' says Brig. Gen. Aharon Levran, a reserve officer who specializes in Middle Eastern armies' weaponry. ``What are the orders for the missiles in case of war? The minute the war starts the chance to play with ideas is small, so it is important to know what the standing orders are.''
Military logic, General Levran argues, would dictate an immediate Israeli attack on those missile sites. ``The basic strategic factor for Israel is the few against the many,'' he says. ``We have to have the initiative.... By seizing the initiative and launching preemptive strikes, Israel would be in a much better position.''
``The reason Israel is not doing it, nor thinking of doing it, is because of its alliance with the United States, and the US obsession with its holy coalition,'' Levran adds.
Gazit, a planner of Israel's raid on the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, to free hostages in 1976, wonders whether the US ``may not be planning to take out the missile sites in western Iraq itself precisely to make sure that Israel does not get in'' the fight. Operationally, he adds, an Israeli attack once hostilities had begun would be very complicated.
``We'd be operating with US, French, British, and Syrian planes in the air. It's not that simple,'' Gazit says. ``Without coordination it would be a very foolish act and very dangerous.''
Defense Minister Moshe Arens insisted on Israel Radio Monday that ``we are not in the business of making preemptive strikes.'' Officials say they are fully aware that such an act would jeopardize continued Arab participation in the US-led coalition as Saddam seeks to stir nationalist feelings around the Arab world.
``Israel's interest and the US interest is that we won't have to see the need for Israeli involvement,'' says Danny Naveh, Mr. Arens's spokesman. ``We can understand the potential outcome for the US coalition of Israeli involvement.''
A hard choice
If Saddam's increasingly dire threats are taken seriously, however, the dilemma for Israeli defense planners remains what to do about the Iraqi missiles. If the missile site commanders' standing orders are to target Tel Aviv automatically on the outbreak of hostilities, as Saddam implied to Spanish television, the government is faced with a painful choice between guaranteeing its citizens' security and respecting Washington's interest in keeping Israel out of the conflict.
Dr. Gold predicts that ``Israel would respond to any clear and present threat to its population,'' but officials are cautious in explaining how they might resolve the dilemma.
``We don't say what we will do,'' says a senior official. ``Saddam has to think twice, we keep him guessing. Why should we make his life easier by telling him he does not have to take us into account?''
If it came down to it, says a senior defense source, the choice between Israeli security and US interests ``would be a very hard decision to take. I really hope we won't get to such a point. I can't say what the decision would be.''