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Israel Key to Iraq War Outlook

Less restraint than during Gulf War is likely. But Israel's firing back could undercut Arab support for US action.

By Ilene R. PrusherSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 1998


As Irit Gavish waited in a teeming kindergarten courtyard with her two children to receive new gas masks, she was unsure about whether Iraq would attack Israel with biological or chemical weapons - and whether the masks would do any good.

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What she was sure of was that if Israel were attacked, it would not show the same restraint that it did during the Gulf War in 1991, when 39 Scud missiles fell on Israel - mostly in her area.

"I think Israel should fire back," says Mrs. Gavish, standing among crowds of jittery Israelis who have been rushing to trade in obsolete masks. "Last time it was different. Israel is [now] ready."

That sentiment seems to echo up to the highest levels of Israel's government. Top political and defense officials say that Israel will not stay on the sidelines while America fights the battle.

For the United States, the prospect of Israel hitting back at Iraq this time - perhaps even with a limited nuclear strike - raises concerns that whatever Arab support Washington has mustered against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would fast evaporate. Any nuclear action at all would certainly also have worldwide repercussions.

If the crisis even reaches the point of a response to an Iraqi attack on Israel - and both Iraqi and Israeli officials say the likelihood is very small - the Clinton administration apparently would prefer to see Israel let its American super-ally do the retaliating.

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was here earlier in the week, she told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he should avoid responding to any Iraqi attack - and was reportedly disappointed when she received no promise from him.

Indeed, of the many factors that have changed in the Middle East equation since the beginning of the decade, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, is Israel's position on how to respond. Mr. Netanyahu and his onetime mentor Moshe Arens, who was defense minister during the Gulf War, are now known to have been critical of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's acquiescence to America's request that Israel not play into Saddam's hands and break up the coalition against him. Then, it included several Arab neighbors.

Now, Netanyahu has apparently found much company in the belief that it hurts Israel's deterrent strength - that is, its known military and nuclear superiority over its foes in the region - if Israel appears consistently reluctant to use any of its capabilities. Though most Israelis think that they must be self-reliant in their defense, some leaders feel that even more strongly than others.

"Shamir was a hawk, but he had a passive personality, and Netanyahu is more the active type," says Shmuel Sandler, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

A lesson for Syria?

Many analysts suggest that Israel's opposition to showing restraint isn't just about the current crisis with Iraq, but about messages an abstention from force might send to other neighbors.

"If you abstain from it once, it's an option. If you do it twice, it's a habit," says Dan Schueftan, a veteran consultant to Israel's Defense and Foreign Ministries. "It will be a lesson to Syria that, from an Israeli point of view, will be extremely dangerous. If [the Arabs] think they can get away with [attacking], Israel cannot survive in this region."

What level of response?

Observers estimate that Israel's response would depend on how it is attacked. If it is again hit with a few conventional missiles, it would probably not respond. But if Saddam sends chemical or biological weapons, then Israel will seriously consider using nuclear weapons - which it has never officially admitted to having - against Iraq.