Israel and the Conflict

Avi Shlaim

in Alex Danchev and Dan Keohane, eds., International Perspectives on the Gulf Conlict, 1990-91, London, St Martin’s Press, 1994, pp. 59-79.

The 1991 Gulf War was the strangest war in Israel's war-scarred history.  Even to the question of whether Israel was a participant in this war there is no simple answer.  By any normal standards, Israel was not a participant in this war.  A state of emergency was declared and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were put on alert but the order to strike never came.  There was no military front, no offensive military operations and no engagement with the enemy.  By launching his rickety rockets against Israeli cities, Saddam Hussein, the villain of the drama, did try to draw Israel in, to transform what he himself had started as an Arab-Arab conflict into an Arab-Israeli conflict.  But Israel refused to be drawn in and simply took the punches on the chin.  It was necessary to keep Israel out in order to keep the Arabs in the American-led anti-Saddam coalition.  The attitude of the government was somewhat contradictory: while defining the conflict in the Gulf as involving Israel directly and insisting on its right to self-defence, it pursued a consistent policy of non-intervention and non-retaliation.  This policy enjoyed the overwhelming support of the civilian population which bore the brunt of the 39 Iraqi Scud attacks.  Inaction spoke louder than words.

The upshot was that from the beginning to the end of the Gulf War, Israel remained a sitting duck.  It was most odd that Israel, of all countries, should choose to play the role of a sitting duck because its entire military doctrine is geared to seizing the initiative and going on the offensive.  The main tenets of this doctrine are deterrence, pre-emption, carrying the fighting to the enemy's territory as swiftly as possible, and self-reliance.  All of these tenets were violated by Israel's passivity during the Gulf War.  In fact, Israel's traditional military doctrine was stood on its head.  To be sure, this was not the first time that Israeli deterrence failed.  But, on those occasions when it did, the other elements of the doctrine were immediately brought into play.  Thus, when President Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran in May 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack and when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel in October 1973, Israel lost no time in mounting a counter-offensive.  What makes the Gulf War unique in the annals of Israeli military history is not that deterrence failed but that Israel chose not to respond to a direct military attack.

Israel's inaction in the face of persistent Iraqi missile attacks is all the more surprising given that its government at the time was headed by Yitzhak Shamir, the leader of the Likud.  A previous national coalition government headed by Shamir collapsed in March 1990 when the Labour Party, frustrated by his intransigent attitude towards negotiations with the Arabs, walked out.  In June 1990, Shamir formed a new and much narrower coalition government with the support of the religious parties and two small secular ultra-nationalist parties, Tehia and Tsomet.  This new government was the most right-wing government in Israel's history and certainly the most hard-line when it came to relations with the Arabs.  Shamir's party colleagues who shared his ideological commitment to Greater Israel assumed the key positions in the government.  David Levy became Foreign Minister, Moshe Arens Defence Minister and Ariel Sharon Housing Minister.  The government's principal military advisers were Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, his deputy Ehud Barak, Military Intelligence Chief Amnon Shahak and Air Force Chief Avihu Bin-Nun.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 took the Israeli military establishment by surprise.  Although the concentration of Iraqi troops along the Iraqi border did not go unnoticed, the intelligence community failed to predict the invasion.  Following the invasion, the intelligence experts were taken to task for their failure to provide the politicians with accurate information about Saddam Hussein's intentions and military capabilities.[1]  Such information, however, was extremely difficult to obtain because of the closed nature of Iraqi society, because the two countries have no common border, because the distance from Israel to Baghdad is 1000 kilometres, because Israel has no satellite and because of the higher priority assigned to dealing with Syria and the intifada.

Despite these limitations Israeli intelligence closely monitored the Iraqi military build up which followed the end of the Iran-Iraq War in August 1988, the development of chemical weapons, nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, the construction of missile launch sites around H2 in Western Iraq and the emergence of an Iraqi-Jordanian military alliance which enabled Iraqi aircraft to conduct surveillance flights along the border with Israel.  In early 1990 Saddam Hussein accelerated his nuclear programme with the aim of balancing Israel's arsenal of nuclear weapons which was estimated to consist of 200 nuclear warheads and 47 atomic bombs at that time.[2]  In April he made his notorious threat to use binary chemical weapons to devour half of Israel 'if the Zionist entity, which has atomic bombs, dared attack Iraq.'  Various incidents, like the Bazoft affair and the 'supergun' affair, convinced Saddam that there was an Israeli conspiracy afoot to sabotage his nuclear programme and possibly to launch a surgical strike similar to the one that had destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.  His threat was intended to deter Israel.[3]

On the Israeli side Saddam's threat was also interpreted as an attempt to neutralize any initiative to block his acquisition of non-conventional weapons.  But the combination of verbal threats and the construction of missile launchers led the intelligence experts to take the threat from Baghdad much more seriously and to report this concern to their civilian masters.  In the summer of 1990 the message from the intelligence community was that Iraq was on the road to becoming a military super-power, that its position on the Arab-Israeli conflict was becoming increasingly inflexible, and that it was developing a long-range strategic capability and non-conventional weapons that could be turned against Israel.  General David Ivri, the Director General of the Defense Ministry, warned repeatedly that the Iraqi missiles posed a lethal threat and that Israel had no answer for it, but the Ministers did not take these warnings very seriously and one Minister dismissed them as the stories of Little Red Riding Hood.[4]  

One minister who did take the reports seriously was the minister responsible for Israel's security, Moshe Arens.  On 20 July, accompanied by the Director of Military Intelligence and the Director of the Mossad, Arens made a special trip to America to alert the Bush Administration to the dangers inherent in the Western policy of supporting Saddam Hussein.  Arens handed his opposite member, Dick Cheney, a file which contained all the material in Israel's possession about the Iraqi efforts to acquire non-conventional weapons.  This intervention appeared to have had the intended effect of communicating at a high level Israel's views about Saddam's nuclear ambitions and about the need for concerted measures to thwart them.  It was a most timely intervention.[5]

The foundations for the policy of keeping a low Israeli profile in the Gulf conflict were laid as soon as the news of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait reached Israel.  As a precaution the Israeli Air Force (IAF) was put on alert, but officials stated that the movement of Iraqi troops into Kuwait did not in itself threaten Israel and would not provoke a military response.  'Kuwait is a long way away,' one official observed. The invasion seemed to vindicate not only the specific warning about Saddam Hussein's ambitions given to the Americans less than two week previously but also some of the theses of the Likud about the Arab world in general.  Likud leaders used the invasion to drive home their point that Iraq was a greater threat to Middle East stability than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  They compared Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and the invasion of Kuwait to Germany's acts of aggression in the 1930s.  This analogy was usually accompanied by calls on the Western world, and especially the United States, to intervene in order to stop the Iraqi dictator in his tracks.  The underlying fear was that unless the Great Powers intervened, a showdown between Israel and Iraq would become inevitable sooner or later, probably sooner rather than later,  and the unstated hope was that Israel's greatest ally would seize the opportunity to defeat Israel's most powerful enemy.

One of the peculiarities of the Gulf crisis was that Israel found herself on the same side as the great majority of the Arab states, including her bitter enemy Syria, in the new line-up.  But there was a fundamental difference between the Arab approach to the crisis and Israel's.  The Arabs for the most part wanted the reversal of the Iraqi aggression, the restoration of the political status quo and the containment of Iraq whereas Israel wanted the destruction of the Iraqi war machine and war-making potential.  Syria in particular was worried that the destruction of Iraqi power would tilt the overall Arab-Israeli military equation in Israel's favour and it was precisely for this reason that Israel wanted to see a thorough-going devastation of Iraq.  Some Israeli experts, like retired General Avigdor Ben-Gal, blithely advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Iraqi forces.  Former Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin opined that nothing short of non-conventional arms would stop Iraq in the wake of its invasion of Kuwait.  'In fact,' he told The Jerusalem Post, 'neither of the two superpowers is capable of overcoming the Iraq army today, unless it deploys non-conventional weapons.'[6]

The government's position was rather more cautious, at least in public.  It was summed up by Defence Minister Moshe Arens when he told the press that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait did not directly affect Israel, did not constitute a strategic change from Israel's point of view and therefore did not call for any action.  At the same time, however, Arens warned that any Iraqi effort to advance forces into Jordan would be regarded as a provocative step and may lead to a military response.  Behind this policy of non-intervention there was a general assessment that the Iraqi invasion would benefit Israel in the short term by focusing international attention on Iraq as the primary source of tension in the area and by letting the Arab world stew in its own juice.  There was also the expectation that the crisis would result in an easing of US pressure on Israel to begin negotiations with the Palestinians and revive Israel's role as a strategic partner of the United States in the Middle East.[7]

Ten days into the crisis, on 12 August, Saddam Hussein, in what amounted to a rare political master-stroke, suggested that Iraq might withdraw from Kuwait if Israel withdrew from all occupied Arab territory and Syria  withdrew from Lebanon.  His proposal introduced a new term into the Middle East diplomatic lexicon - linkage.  Overnight Saddam became the hero of the Arab masses and the saviour of the Palestinians.  The Gulf conflict and the Arab-Israeli conflict which Israel had laboured to keep apart now became linked in the public mind.  A government spokesman dismissed Saddam's proposal as a cheap propaganda ploy.[8]  But the proposal landed the Bush Administration on the horns of a dilemma.  On the one hand, they did not want to reward Saddam Hussein for his aggression; on the other hand, they could hardly deny that the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict also required a settlement.  President Bush's way round this dilemma was to deny that there was any parallel between the two occupations but to promise that once Iraq left Kuwait, a settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem would be high on the international agenda.  In other words, he rejected the simultaneous linkage of the two conflicts in favour of a deferred linkage.  This placed Israel once more on the defensive.

On 12 August, a comprehensive review of the situation was carried out at a meeting convened by the Deputy Chief of Staff.  General Barak summed up the discussion with the observation that, on the one hand, Saddam was afraid of an Israeli response but, on the other hand, he had a powerful motive to involve Israel in the conflict in order to break up the coalition that the United States was building up against him.  It was thought that Saddam may pre-empt by attacking Israel if he felt that the United States was about to attack him.

Some of the participants in the discussion suggested that red lines be drawn to warn Iraq.  Both the Chief of Staff and his deputy, however, took the view that Israel ought to speak in more general terms and avoid a commitment to a particular course of action in advance.  The impact of the crisis on US-Israeli relations was also discussed at the meeting.  A number of officers pointed out that in the event of an Iraqi defeat without the help of Israel, Israel's value as a strategic asset for the United States would be called into question.  Despite these doubts, it was resolved to ask the United States for a hot line for the transmission of real time intelligence about Iraqi deployments in general and preparations for launching missiles in particular.[9]

As the fear of an immediate Iraqi attack receded, IDF embarked on preparations for a major war.  On 19 August, the Deputy Chief of Staff issued the order to IDF to get ready for possible action on the Eastern front.  The General Staff prepared operational plans for alternative courses of action against Iraq.  The politicians stepped up the verbal warnings, promising dire retribution in the event of an Iraqi attack but without spelling out what precise form the retribution would take.  While public warnings to Saddam Hussein became an almost daily occurrence, part of a calculated policy of deterrence, both soldiers and politicians were agreed that there would be no automatic response to an Iraqi attack and that co-ordination with the United States was of paramount importance.[10]

Any sign that American resolve might be weakening was greeted with barely concealed disappointment in Jerusalem.  The Likud government was intent on bringing about the destruction of Iraq's military potential and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  'If Mr Hussein stays in power and retains the weapons, there will be grounds for concern here, in this region and, I think, throughout the world', said Arens in an interview.  'I hope this will not be the way the crisis ends.'[11]  A diplomatic compromise over Kuwait which left the Iraqi war machine intact and led to the withdrawal of American forces from the region would have left Israel to face Saddam alone.  For Israel this was the nightmare scenario.  This is why the prospect that the Gulf crisis would be resolved by United Nations mediation or by an Arab solution so alarmed the Israeli government.

Israeli ministers could not be too outspoken in opposing diplomacy and pressing for military action to topple Saddam Hussein and defeat his army.  They did not wish to be seen as war-mongers, particularly when the lives of the Western hostages were at stake, nor did they want to supply grist to Saddam's mill just when he was portraying the American military build-up in Saudi Arabia as part of a Zionist plot.  But they maintained an active lobby behind the scenes in favour of decisive American military action.  'There are only two groups that are beating the drums of war in the Middle East,' wrote American columnist Patrick Buchanan, 'the Israeli defence ministry and their amen corner in the US.'  Israel's friends in Washington, with Henry Kissinger at their head, articulated the hawkish position.  In an article in the Los Angles Times of 19 August Kissinger argued that if sanctions are too uncertain and diplomacy unavailing, 'the US will need to consider a surgical and progressive destruction of Iraq's military assets - especially as an outcome that leaves Saddam Hussein in place and his military machine unimpaired might turn out to be an interlude between aggressions.'  This position was barely distinguishable from that of the Israeli government.[12]   Tactical as well as strategic suggestions reached the Americans through private channels.  Israeli sources advised that 'the best way to hurt Saddam is to target his family, his personal guard and his mistress,' revealed Michael Dugan, US Air Force Chief General who was fired for shooting from the hip.[13]

There was more than a modicum of chutzpah in the advice proffered by Israelis to a foreign country to go to war, with all the attendant costs and risks, in order to remove a threat to their security.  And it was a far cry from Israel's traditional motto of 'give us the tools and we will do the job.'  For America these cheers from the sidelines were distinctly unhelpful because the last thing they wanted was to be seen to act at Israel's behest.  Although Israeli leaders hotly denied that they were pushing America to go to war, lobbying was an important aspect of Israeli policy during the crisis.

In Israel, America's reluctance to share intelligence and to treat Israel as a strategic partner was a cause for particular concern.  On 17 September Moshe Arens flew to Washington for talks with Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.  Arens requested a substantial increase in American economic and military aid to preserve Israel's qualitative superiority.  He used America's promise of a massive arms package to Saudi Arabia to buttress his case.  Cheney countered with the Pentagon's estimate that the threat to Israel had decreased as a result of the strong American presence in the Gulf and consequently declined most of Arens's requests for aid and strategic co-ordination.  For the first time, Arens also heard an explicit American request that Israel should not pre-empt or respond to an Iraqi attack so as not to splinter the coalition assembled by America against Iraq.

At the meeting with General Scowcroft the following day, Arens dwelt on the danger that Saddam Hussein would launch missiles against Israel and Israel's need for anti-ballistic missiles, singling out the Arrow as the only reliable weapons-system for dealing with this problem.  Scowcroft conceded that, as a desperate gamble, Saddam Hussein might try to harm Israel but added that Israel should not allow herself to be provoked.  Surely, Israel had the right to respond if it came under attack, said Arens.  Not necessarily, replied Scowcroft, America would prefer to deal with the missile bases herself.  To soften the blow, Arens was promised some supplies of ammunition and aircraft but even this modest promise was not kept in full.[14]

On the assumption that the United States would not resort to military action against Iraq before the middle of October, the Israeli government, following protracted discussions and consultations with the security services, reached the decision to start distributing gas masks to the civilian population on 1 October.  For a nation haunted by memories of the Nazi gas chambers, this was a highly sensitive issue.  The difficulty of resolving it was compounded by the fact that IDF had no reliable information as to whether Iraq was capable of fitting chemical warheads to its Scud missiles.  Saddam Hussein's threat to incinerate half of Israel seared itself in the mind of the public but his Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, later said that Baghdad would use chemical weapons against Israel only if Jerusalem launched a nuclear strike.

Most senior IDF officers were opposed to the distribution of the masks because of the doubt surrounding Iraq's capability and because they worried that the distribution of gas masks would cause panic among the civilian population.  In cabinet, David Levy pressed for immediate distribution against the opinion of Moshe Arens and the defence establishment.  Arens initially argued against distribution, suggesting it would cause panic and might be misperceived by Iraq as an indication that Israel was planning a pre-emptive strike.  Yitzhak Shamir and the majority of the cabinet supported this view but eventually resolved, on the basis of worse case analysis,  to proceed with the distribution.[15]

If the issuing of gas masks could be perceived in Baghdad as a prelude to a pre-emptive strike, the other risk was that it would be taken to imply a purely defensive posture and even a sign of weakness and that Israeli deterrence would be eroded as a consequence.  To ensure that this did not happen, Prime Minster Shamir made a series of public statements of mounting severity, making it clear that any attack on Israel would meet with an Israeli response.  His words were carefully chosen and the adjective 'terrible' featured prominently in characterizing the promised response.  Shamir's warnings were widely interpreted by commentators in Israel and abroad to mean that an Iraqi attack on Israel with chemical weapons could provoke an Israeli nuclear response.  Shamir did nothing to contradict this interpretation of his statements.  He seemed content to let the Western media drive home the message that tangling with Israel may lead to the obliteration of Baghdad.[16]  Zeev Schiff, the respected military commentator of the Israeli daily Haaretz, explained Shamir's statements as an attempt to reinforce Israeli deterrence.  He recalled the Arab claim that chemical weapons were intended to balance Israel's nuclear weapons.  They have now been warned, he said, that the outcome might be different: 'chemical weapons were liable to spur a terrible reaction rather than to neutralize it.'[17]

On the diplomatic front Shamir continued to resist all attempts to link the Gulf conflict with the Palestinian issue.  He rejected out of hand a Soviet proposal in early September for the convening of an international conference to deal with all the disputes in the Middle East.  The United States also rejected the Soviet proposal.  Following a meeting with David Levy in Washington, Secretary of State James Baker stated that the Iraqi-Kuwaiti dispute and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute were two separate matters which had to be treated separately.[18]

The common US-Israeli front against linkage was severely shaken on 8 October by a bloody incident on Temple Mount in the heart of 'reunited' Jerusalem.  Israeli security forces used live ammunition to deal with a Muslim protest that turned into a riot, killing 21 of the demonstrators and wounding 200.  Israel was back in the headlines.  The massacre on Temple Mount unleashed a universal wave of condemnation.  Arab governments who had joined in the American-led coalition against Saddam Hussein came under attack for complicity in American double standards in rushing to the defence of Kuwait while doing nothing to end the 23-year old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  The very linkage that Saddam Hussein had failed to achieve was now highlighted by the brutal behaviour of the Israeli security forces.  America was driven to vote in favour of two UN resolutions condemning Israel.  President Bush also summoned several American Jewish leaders and warned them that Israel was undermining the coalition against Saddam Hussein.  He even hinted that if the Jewish lobby turned against him, he would state publicly that Israel's behaviour endangered the life of American soldiers in the Gulf.[19]

The massacre on Temple Mount was a minor watershed in US-Israeli relations.  Previously the Shamir government had hoped that the crisis in the Gulf would enable Israel to maintain the status quo in the occupied territories and abort the Bush administration's efforts to promote an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.  But the benefits of the Iraqi aggression for Israel turned out to be extremely short-lived.  What the universal condemnation demonstrated was that there was a new equation in the making: an American approach to the Middle East based on an alliance with the Arabs and an Israeli approach to the Palestinians which largely ignored American, Arab and international opinion.  This became the source of permanent tension in US-Israeli relations.

This tension was temporarily relieved on 29 November when the Security Council passed resolution 678, 'the mother of all resolutions,' authorizing the use of 'all necessary means' against Iraq unless it withdrew from Kuwait by 15 January 1991.  The ultimatum seemed to suggest that America and her allies meant business.  Israel's elation was punctured the next day, however, when President Bush offered to go 'the extra mile for peace' by inviting Tariq Aziz to Washington for talks.  While careful to avoid the impression that they were goading America to go to war, Israel and her influential friends in Washington questioned the wisdom of a policy of appeasement.  Professor Yuval Neeman, the leader of the Tehia party and a leading cabinet hawk, recalled that George Bush had compared Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and said that there was therefore no escape from comparing Bush with Neville Chamberlain.[20]

President Bush's invitation to talks and the fears that America would go for a diplomatic settlement to the Gulf crisis prompted the Israeli government to reassess the policy of keeping a low profile and to hint that in the event of such a settlement it might take pre-emptive action of its own against Iraq.  David Levy told a delegation from the European Parliament that Israel would assume the highest profile should her security come under threat.  Levy also summoned the US Ambassador, William Brown, and told him that Israel expected the United States to stand by the commitments it took upon itself after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.  In Israel's view, Levy said, the two principal US commitments had been to bring about the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait and to remove the Iraqi military threat.  Levy added that Israel had agreed to adopt its 'low profile' policy during the crisis largely because of this perception.  This was the first time that the Israeli public heard about the alleged commitments from their powerful friend.  Yet, taken together, Levy's statements to the European parliamentarians and the US ambassador amounted to an official warning that in the absence of firm action by the international community against Iraq, Israel reserved the right to take military steps on her own.[21]

High-level US-Israeli consultations were stepped up with the approach of the deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.  On 11 December, Shamir had a two-hour meeting with Bush at the White House which went some way towards repairing the rift between them.  Bush assured Shamir that in the event of an unprovoked Iraqi attack, the US would come to Israel's aid.  Bush stressed that his administration was doing its utmost to avoid linkage between the Gulf crisis and the Palestinian issue and that it was essential that Israel should do the same by refraining from unilateral action against Iraq.  According to one report in the Washington Post, Shamir promised not to mount a pre-emptive strike and to consult Bush before responding to any Iraqi attack.  This report was denied, however, by officials in the Prime Minister's office.  The test-firing of a Jericho anti-ballistic missile without notifying the US seemed to illustrate Israel's intent on preserving its own independence in the event of an Iraqi attack.  But by the end of the month, co-ordination between the Pentagon and the Israeli military had been stepped up.  In return for pledging full consultation with the US before launching military action against Iraq, Israel was given access to prime US intelligence not normally supplied to other countries.  To facilitate co-operation, a hot line, codenamed Hammer Rick, was established between the Pentagon Crisis Situation Room and the Israeli defence ministry in Tel Aviv.  This provided a significant inducement for Israel to maintain the low profile and to refrain from creating unnecessary tensions.[22]

The Israelis hoped that the sharing of intelligence would be followed by joint operational planning or at least by the co-ordination of their respective operational plans for meeting the threat from Iraq.  But here they met with a firm American rebuff.  Israeli frustration was deepened by the news that James Baker was going to meet Tariq Aziz for talks in Geneva on 9 January.  The experts in Military Intelligence were convinced that Saddam Hussein would not yield but they also estimated that unless he was knocked off his perch, he would be able to add nuclear capability to his arsenal within a few years.  Despite Bush's categoric rejection of any compromise in the upcoming talks, Israeli officials were privately wary of what was known as the 'no-deal deal.'  They feared that Israel may be forced to shoulder the political price if a diplomatic breakthrough was achieved at the meeting, with Iraq agreeing to withdraw from Kuwait.  They also feared that some form of linkage between the Kuwaiti and the Palestinian issues may emerge out of the Geneva talks.  Baker, however, rejected such linkage point-blank at his six-hour meeting with Aziz.  When Aziz rejected the American ultimatum, Israel's fears were finally laid to rest.

IDF was put on the highest state of military readiness, with its reconnaissance and combat aircraft in the air around the clock and the civilian population prepared with sealed rooms and gas masks.  The failure of the talks was also followed by an escalation of the war of words, with the Iraqis saying that if they are attacked by America, they will attack Tel Aviv; the Americans saying that such an attack would constitute a flagrant provocation; and the Israelis warning that anyone who attacked them may not live to regret it.[23]

Against this background of mounting tension, two schools of thought formed inside the cabinet in Jerusalem.  Prime Minister Shamir thought that Israel should continue to exercise self-restraint.  He was supported by David Levy, Moshe Arens, Dan Meridor and the representatives of the religious parties.  The other school demanded a military response to neutralize the Iraqi threat.  This school was led by Ariel Sharon and included Professor Yuval Neeman, nicknamed Dr Strangelove, and Rafael Eitan, the leader of the Tsomet and a former IDF Chief of Staff.[24]

As the countdown to war began, the Bush administration stepped up its efforts to bring Israel under control.  On 11 January 1991, Under-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger who was noted for his pro-Israeli sympathies, arrived in Israel at the head of a high-level delegation.  Their purpose was said to be 'to co-ordinate policy and strategy with Israel in the event that hostilities break out,' but their real mission was to act as babysitters, to ensure that Israel continued to lie low.  At the meeting with the Prime Minister, Eagleburger conveyed the President's request that Israel should refrain from retaliating against Iraq, even if attacked.  Shamir made it clear that under no circumstances would Israel undertake not to retaliate if attacked.  However, he promised that Israel would try to stay out of the Gulf conflict, 'if it is only possible.'  Shamir had already promised not to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Iraqi missile launching sites, in effect agreeing to absorb the first blow should the Iraqis carry out their threats.  This was a radical enough departure from Israel's traditional preference for surprise attacks.  But he and his colleagues were unanimous in their view that Israel, as a sovereign state, could not relinquish its basic right to self-defence.  Under these circumstances, Eagleburger had to decline Shamir's request for operational co-ordination between the Israeli military and the US forces in the Gulf.[25]

On 14 January, Eagleburger, Under-Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and their aides arrived for talks with the IDF General Staff.  They promised the Israeli officers swift and efficient action against the missile launch sites in western Iraq.  They said that the treatment will commence at the outbreak of hostilities and asked that Israel should not intervene.  In their estimate, all the launchers could be destroyed in two days and they doubted that Israel could do any better. They met with scepticism and a polite refusal. Eagleburger then offered two batteries of Patriot missiles with their American crews in return for an Israeli promise not to respond to an Iraqi missile attack.  Once again he met with a polite refusal.  Both the Chief of Staff and the Minister of defence wanted to preserve the principle that no foreign power could be entrusted with Israel's security.[26]  This principle, however, was soon to be compromised by the arrival in Israel of Patriot missile batteries with American crews to man them following the outbreak of hostilities in the Gulf.

Another abrupt change of policy occasioned by the Gulf crisis involved Jordan.  The Labour Party had always regarded the survival of King Hussein's regime in Amman as vital to Israel's security.  The Likud, on the other hand, took the line that 'Jordan is Palestine' and, consequently, that if the Palestinians were to overthrow the monarchy and turn Jordan into a Palestinian state, this would not endanger Israel's security and may indeed be a welcome change.  Ariel Sharon, the Housing Minister, was the most consistent and aggressive advocate of this line of argument inside the cabinet.  This attitude had played an important part in pushing King Hussein into an alliance with Iraq, an alliance which provided him with his only deterrence against a possible move by Likud to realize its thesis that Jordan is Palestine.  During the Gulf crisis Jordan assumed ever greater importance as a buffer and potential battleground between Iraq and Israel.

Likud leaders suddenly discovered the value of having a stable country under a moderate ruler on their eastern border.  The change of tune was unmistakable.  Instead of issuing threats, the government began to send, through third parties, soothing messages to Amman to assure the King that Israel had no plans to attack him and to urge him not to allow the entry of Iraqi troops into Jordan.[27]  As 1990 turned into 1991, there were worrying signs that Jordan was concentrating forces east of the River Jordan and that the King was losing control of the situation.  Shamir now sought a more direct channel of communication with Amman.  On 4 January, the director-general of his office, Yossi Ben-Aharon, met senior Jordanian figures who were close to the King.  Ben-Aharon assured the Jordanians that Israel had no intention of seizing the opportunity offered by the crisis in the Gulf to try and bring about a change of regime in Amman.  For their part, the Jordanians made it clear that under no circumstances would they allow Israeli forces to enter their territory or Israeli aircraft to use their air space.[28] The possibility of a clash with Jordan excited some reckless talk in Jerusalem.  Some politicians, on the extreme right, did not share in the sudden conversion to the royalist cause.  Ariel Sharon was not impressed with the argument that Israel had to do her utmost to stop Jordan getting embroiled in the Gulf conflict.  On the contrary, one of his motives for advocating swift and forceful military action against Iraq was his desire to destabilize the regime in Amman. The cabinet continued to receive intelligence briefings on the situation in Jordan but following the expiry of the ultimatum for Iraqi withdrawal, it redirected its attention to developments further east.[29]

At midnight on 16 January Dick Cheney called Moshe Arens on the Hammer Rick line to inform him that the allied air offensive was about to begin.  On this and subsequent occasions, the Americans were very economical with the information they provided to their Israeli colleagues.  Cheney had been charged by the White House with the task of keeping the Israelis plugged in, but not so plugged in as to make them de facto members of the coalition.[30]  

On the night of 18 January, the first barrage of eight Iraqi Scud missiles landed in Tel Aviv and Haifa.  After months of uncertainty and bluster, Saddam Hussein carried out his threat to attack the Jewish state, dramatically raising the stakes in the Gulf War.  It was the first air attack on an Israeli city since 1948.  The damage caused was limited because the Scud missiles, according to one military expert, were 'stone age technology.' 'Flying dustbins' was how one eye witness described the warheads that fell down from the sky.  Another reason for the limited effect was that the Scuds were armed with only light warheads to enable them to cover the distance to reach Israel.  But the psychological impact of the attack, both in Israel and in the Arab world, was profound.

Arens held an emergency meeting with the Chief of Staff and his deputy.  Arens wondered whether they should not put aside the principle of self-reliance and accept after all the American offer of two batteries of Patriot missiles.  The Patriots were a success story in Saudi Arabia, the other target of the Iraqi Scuds; the public wanted them badly; and awkward questions were beginning to be asked by people in the know about the earlier refusal of the American offer.  IDF experts did not rate the Patriots very highly but, taking public pressure into account, Dan Shomron recommended acceptance.  Having had a phone call from Baker urging continuing restraint, Arens now called Cheney who instantly agreed to send the Patriots and promised that the Americans were going after western Iraq full bore and that there was nothing the Israelis could do which was not already being done.[31]

Government spokesmen wasted no time in vowing revenge for the Iraqi aggression.  On 19 January, another 5 Scuds hit Tel Aviv, provoking a new round of tough oratory.  The real test came at the cabinet meeting on the 23rd, the day after a single Scud landed in Ramat Gan, killing three and wounding 96 people.  Calls for immediate retaliation began to be heard inside and outside the cabinet but the military kept their cool.  Shortly before the cabinet meeting, the Chief of Staff and his deputy, troubled by this trend, asked to speak to the Prime Minister in the presence of the Defence Minister.  Shamir seemed convinced by the arguments against hitting back, Arens less so.  At the cabinet meeting, the officers presented the operational plans and then asked for permission to express their opinion about the broader considerations that had to be taken into account in choosing the most appropriate response.  Shomron preferred what he termed 'important' - the destruction of the Iraqi military infrastructure - over the 'urgent' - hitting the missile launchers.  Iraq's infrastructure was the main target, he said, hence the importance of co-operation with the United States which was doing most of the work.  If Israel's rear continued to sustain heavy blows, the urgent objective might outweigh the important one, leading to Israeli intervention.  If chemical weapons were to be used against Israel, IDF would be capable of dealing with the missile problem and of inflicting punishment on Iraq.  The IAF chief believed that 'the air force can do the job' and that was also Shomron's view, but they acknowledged that the IAF could not operate freely in Iraq without an American agreement.  

Shomron and his deputy gave a cool analysis of Saddam Hussein's moves.  The obvious motive for the missile attacks was to embroil Israel, break up the coalition, reduce pressure on his forces and possibly turn them westward, towards a target which would be considered legitimate in the eyes of many Arabs.  Under these circumstances, Shomron and Barak thought it would be a mistake for Israel to take military action.  Arens could not help feeling that it would be better for Israel to make its contribution to the war effort but he did not press for action.  The advice of the military was thus decisive in persuading the politicians to persevere with the policy of non-involvement.[32]

The White House publicly commended Israel for its remarkable restraint in the face of aggression and Lawrence Eagleburger was sent back to shore up Israel's commitment to the policy of non-action.  In his talks with Israeli leaders, Eagleburger had to concede that the Scud launchers posed a greater problem than anticipated.  Nevertheless, he returned home with the impression that, though troubled, the Israelis would react only if hit with chemical warheads.  This was not an accurate assessment; an attack causing heavy casualties, even from a conventional warhead, was liable to tip the delicate balance in favour of retaliation.

The Israelis continued to press the Americans to divert substantial resources to the campaign against the troublesome launchers, to what General Norman Scharzkopf described as 'finding a needle in a haystack.'  Towards the end of January, General Barak and David Ivri, the director-general of the defence ministry, made a secret visit to Washington and held talks with Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Colin Powell and other senior officials.  Cheney was optimistic that they could suppress the missile sites though not as swiftly as Israel would wish.  In any case, he made it clear that the administration expected Israel to keep out of the conflict and he refused to give a green light to joint operations.  Barak and Ivri made it equally clear that Israel was not committed to respond only to chemical warheads and that one well aimed conventional warhead may force her to retaliate.  Following the visit, there was a noticeable increase in allied activity against the missile launchers and a corresponding decrease in the frequency and effectiveness of the attacks on Israel.[33]

Uncertainty about Iraq's potential for putting chemical warheads on its Scuds was something Israel was destined to live with until the end of the Gulf War.  To deter such a move, Israel employed a strategy of threatening ambiguity, of making thinly veiled references to 'the bomb in the basement' while carefully eschewing the adoption of an explicit nuclear posture.  If Seymour Hersh is to be believed, an American satellite detected that, following the first Scud barrage, Israeli missile launchers armed with nuclear warheads were moved into the open and deployed facing Iraq, ready to launch on command.  According to Hersh, American intelligence picked up other signs indicating that Israel had gone on a full nuclear alert that would remain in effect for weeks.[34]  

What the Americans undoubtedly picked up in the media was an increase in the number of Israeli voices which intimated that a chemical attack would justify the use of nuclear weapons.  The Americans shrewdly exploited these voices in their own efforts to dissuade Saddam Hussein from using chemical weapons.  Dick Cheney stated on 2 February that if Iraq used chemical weapons against Israel, Israel may retaliate with non-conventional weapons.  The statement was significant, firstly, because the warning was issued not in Washington's name but indirectly in Israel's name, secondly, because it confirmed that Israel was capable of realizing a non-conventional option, and, thirdly, because the warning to refrain from escalation was addressed only to Iraq and not to Israel.[35]  The statement was bound to deepen awareness in Baghdad that Israel had nuclear weapons ready for use and it may well have played a part in Saddam Hussein's decision not to raise the conflict above the conventional threshold.

As occasional missiles continued to be fired on Israel's soft underbelly from mobile launchers in western Iraq and the newly arrived Patriot batteries with their American crews had only partial success in intercepting them, pressure mounted for sending IDF into action.  On 11 February, Moshe Arens, accompanied by Ehud Barak and David Ivri, made a secret visit to Washington to urge the Americans to step up their assaults on the targets in Iraq which most concerned Israel and to see if they would give a green light for an Israeli intervention in the fighting.  His most important meeting was with President Bush.  Bush claimed that the number of missile launches had significantly declined and doubted that Israel could do better than the Americans and their allies.  He also referred to public opinion polls in Israel which indicated very wide support for the official policy of restraint.  Arens was reminded that Israel could only reach Iraq by passing through the air space of one of the Arab countries and that such action was liable to damage the coalition.  Bush and his colleagues were prepared to meet some of Arens's requests for arms and financial aid but they showed no sympathy for Israel's desire to act and maintained their veto on operational co-ordination.[36]

At successive cabinet meetings, the policy of restraint was reaffirmed.  Officially, Israel was 'postponing' military response and keeping its options open, reserving the right to reply at a time and in a manner of its own choosing.  But, in practice, Israel was beginning to resemble the man who is provoked but wants to be restrained from having to fight.  According to a version released by Washington when the war was over, after every Scud attack, Arens would ask Cheney for electronic identity codes for distinguishing between friend and foe and later for an air corridor through Saudi Arabia to enable Israeli warplanes to retaliate without overflying Jordan, but to no avail.  Shamir would weigh it all up, sit tight and nothing would happen.[37]

By temperament and political outlook, Shamir was predisposed to inaction and immobilism, to resisting outside pressure and to a militant defence of the status quo.  During the Gulf War, therefore, he was in his element.  He presided with great aplomb and gravitas    over the inaction of his country's legendary armed forces.  These very same qualities made him a very poor leader on the home front.  As the leader of a nation at war, he won no plaudits and he deserved none.  What distinguished this war from all Israel's previous wars was the inability of its armed forces to protect the civilian rear.  It is this fact, among others, that turned the six weeks in early 1991 into such a harrowing psychological ordeal for the civilian population.  There was a maddening dichotomy between proven military prowess on the one hand and a sense of utter impotence on the other.  Shamir's countrymen had become accustomed to heroic feats from their armed forces, like the capture of Adolf Eiechmann, the Entebbe rescue raid, and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor.  They were intelligent enough to understand that this crisis was different and 80 per cent of them supported the official policy of restraint.[38]  But they needed a leader to guide them, to inspire them and to unite them.  All they got from Shamir was a gruff and stony silence.  There was no Churchillian oratory to keep up their morale.  'Maybe we do not deserve someone like Churchill,' wrote one exasperated journalist, 'but do us a favour, prime minister, say something.'[39]  The only response that this plea evoked was a prolonged and troubled silence.
Although the public did not know what the diminutive man in the highest office in the land was thinking, by mid-February, as the allies were preparing to follow the air offensive with a land war, the possibility of a change in policy hung in the air.  Arens was still convinced that Israel must retaliate and hoped that the land war would offer a 'window of opportunity' for Israel to weigh in.  His reasoning was that, at this final stage of the war, active resistance to flights over Jordanian  air space was unlikely, the political damage to the coalition would be minimal and if the Americans were simply informed of an imminent Israeli intervention, they would have to get out of the way.  IDF had prepared an operational plan and was ready to execute it on command.  The Chief of Staff was now persuaded that the gains of military intervention would outweigh the costs and was, by his own account, itching to go.  At one point he seriously discussed with Arens specific scenarios for intervention, but these scenarios did not materialize.  In the last two weeks of the war the Iraqis fired only six Scuds in an apparent attempt to hit the nuclear reactor in Dimona, but they all landed harmlessly in Negev sands.  On February 28, President Bush ordered a ceasefire and Israel lost the opportunity to retaliate.[40]

If the Gulf War was full of contradictions and paradoxes from Israel's point of view, its outcome was not less so.  The first and most obvious paradox is that Israel did not participate in the military side of this war, except as a target.  She was both the strongest advocate of an all-out offensive against Iraq and the most passive party when it came to carrying out this offensive.  Her security doctrine was built on carrying the war to the enemy's territory as swiftly and devastatingly as possible, but during the Gulf War all that her army tried to do, with marked lack of success, was to protect its own backyard against attack.  Another paradox is that although Israel and Iraq were sworn enemies, Israel was excluded from the coalition of thirty nations assembled by the United States against this enemy, for fear of defection by the Arab members.  A third and related paradox is that Israel could make its greatest contribution to the allied campaign to defeat this enemy by staying out and keeping a low profile.

At the beginning of the Gulf crisis, Israel chalked up some impressive gains but the final outcome fell short of her original expectation.  Admittedly, the nightmare scenario did not materialize; for whatever reasons, Saddam Hussein did not withdraw peacefully from Kuwait and had to be ejected by force.  But from Israel's point of view, Operation Desert Storm ended too soon.  Israel's war aims were three-fold: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the cutting of Iraq's war machine down to size and the neutralization of its capacity to develop the weapons of mass-destruction.  The first aim was not achieved by the Gulf War, and the last two were achieved only in part.

Israel's own capacity to deter potential Arab aggressors was probably weakened, on balance, by her deliberate choice to stay on the sidelines in this conflict.  It is true that her thinly veiled threats to resort to nuclear weapons seem to have been effective in deterring Saddam Hussein from using the primitive chemical weapons at his disposal.  It is also true that the damage done to Iraq's nuclear programme helped to ensure the preservation of Israel's regional monopoly over nuclear weapons for some time to come.  But the fact remains that Israel had pledged that if attacked she would retaliate.  She was attacked.  But she did not retaliate.  As a consequence, there was a decrease in her capacity for conventional deterrence.  Whatever the motive behind the policy of non-retaliation, the result was a diminution in Israel's stature as a military power in her own eyes and in the eyes of her opponents.

The most important consequence of the Gulf War, however, concerned Israel's special relationship with America.  One way of looking at the Gulf War is to say that Israel was the greatest beneficiary because, without having to lift a finger herself, she witnessed the defeat of her most formidable foe at the hands of her most faithful friend.  But such a view involves a serious over-simplification.  For Israel had traditionally been regarded, not least by herself, as a strategic partner and a strategic asset to the United States in the Middle East.  The Gulf conflict was a real eye-opener in this respect.  Here was a conflict which threatened America's most vital interests in the region and the best service that Israel could render to her senior partner was to refrain from doing anything.  Far from being a strategic asset, Israel was widely perceived as an embarrassment and a liability.  

Throughout the Gulf crisis and the war that followed it, there was tension in the triangular relationship between America, Israel and the Arabs.  Gradually but unmistakably, under the impact of the crisis, America continued to move away from reliance on Israel to reliance on her old and new Arab allies to attain her objectives in the region.  In this important respect, Israel was to emerge not as a winner but as an ultimate loser from the Gulf conflict.  Nothing demonstrated this more clearly than the pressure applied by the Bush administration on Israel to engage in peace negotiations with the Arabs as soon as the guns in the Gulf fell silent.[41]

[1] Maariv, 3 August 1990.
[2] Dilip Hiro, Desert Shield to Desert Storm  (London: Paladin, 1992) p.58.
[3] Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography (London: Brassey's, 1991) pp. 207-11. On Saddam's instrumental attitude and contacts with Israel see pp. 269-70.
[4] 'Israel and the Gulf War', Maariv, 29 March 1991.  This is a special, fifty page report on which I have drawn heavily in this paper. I am grateful  to Dr Efraim Karsh for sharing with me this and other research materials.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Haaretz, 28 August 1990 and Jerusalem Post, 3 August 1990.
[7] International Herald Tribune and Maariv, 3 August 1990.
[8] Maariv, 13 August 1990.
[9] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991.
[10] Ibid.
[11] International Herald Tribune, 29 August 1990.
[12] Hiro, Desert Shield to Desert Storm, pp. 147-48 and 156.
[13] Bob Woodward, The Commanders (New York: Simon Schuster, 1991) p. 291.
[14] Maariv, 19 August 1990 and 29 March 1991.
[15] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991 and Jerusalem Post, 23 August 1990.
[16] Dan Margalit, 'The Name of the Game - There Is No Alternative', Haaretz, 3 October 1990.
[17] Zeev Schiff, 'Take Him Seriously', Haaretz, 2 November 1990.
[18] Haaretz, 6 September 1990.
[19] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991.
[20] Maariv, 2 December 1990.
[21] Haaretz, 5 December 1990.
[22] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991;  Washington Post, 26 December 1990; International Herald Tribune, 27 December 1990; Jerusalem Post, 28 December 1990; and Woodward, The Commanders, p. 367.
[23] Jerusalem Post, 6 January 1991 and Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991.
[24] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991.
[25] Woodward, The Commanders, p. 363.
[26] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991.
[27] Adam Garfinkle, Israel and Jordan in the Shadow of War (London: Macmillan 1992) p. 173 and Joseph Alpher, 'Security Arrangements for a Palestinian Settlement', Survival 34 (1992-93) p. 57.    
[28] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991.
[29] Uri Avnery, 'In Israel, Reckless Talk About Jordan', International Herald Tribune, 7 September 1990; and Zeev Schiff, Haaretz, 3 March, 1991.
[30] Woodward, The Commanders, p.370.
[31] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991 and New York Times, 5 March 1991.
[32] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Seymour M. Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb (London: Faber and Faber, 1991) p. 318.
[35] Haaretz, 3 February 1991 and Zeev Schiff, 'A Non-Conventional Warning in Israel's Name', Haaretz, 4 February 1991.
[36] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991 and Haaretz, 13 February 1991.
[37] Hiro, Desert Shield to Desert Storm, p. 332.
[38] Meron Benvenisti, Fatal Embrace (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Keter, 1992), p.100.
[39] Gideon Samet, 'Even if we have no Churchill', Haaretz, 25 January 1991.
[40] Maariv, special supplement, 29 March 1991; interview with Moshe Arens, Yediot Aharonot, 17 April 1991; and Lieutenant-General (res.) Dan Shomron, 'A Personal Report on the Gulf War,' Yediot Aharonot, 8 September 1991.
[41] Avi Shlaim, 'When Bush Comes to Shove: America and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process', The Oxford International Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 2-6.