27 years since the Gulf War - why didn't Israel respond?

Politicking and diplomacy made Israel sit on its hands while Scud missiles reined down.

By
February 12, 2018 21:46
27 years since the Gulf War - why didn't Israel respond?

Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister during the 1991 Gulf War, is flanked by then-defense minister Moshe Arens (left) and an unidentified officer. (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

The release recently by the IDF and Defense Ministry archives of interviews with me and the late Lt.-Gen. Dan Shomron, who was defense minister and chief of staff at the time of the Gulf War, has rekindled the debate about whether Israel should have responded to the Iraqi missile attacks during the Gulf War. Thirty-nine Scud missiles were launched from western Iraq against Israeli targets during the five-and-a-half weeks of the war. Only six landed in populated areas, causing considerable property damage and the loss of a single life.

Throughout the war US president George H. W. Bush did his utmost to keep Israel from responding. US deputy secretary of state Larry Eagleburger and undersecretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz arrived in Israel four days before the aerial bombing of Iraq began, on a mission to convince us not to launch a preemptive attack and to stay out of the war. They assured us that the US armed forces would within days eliminate the danger of Scud attacks against Israel, while Israeli participation might well lead to a break-up of the coalition and ensuing difficulties. Should the US not be successful in eliminating the Scud threat to Israel, they said, the US would acquiesce to an Israeli response.

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As it turned out, all American attempts to hit the Scud launchers failed, and throughout the war Scuds kept falling on Israel. Raytheon Patriot anti-aircraft missiles sent to Israel by the US, despite a number of attempts, failed to intercept a single Scud. Nevertheless, Bush in almost daily calls to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir urged him to keep Israel out of the war despite Iraqi “provocations.”

Israeli participation could lead to a break-up of the coalition, he insisted.

The Patriots, originally designed as anti-aircraft missiles, despite reports to the contrary during the war were incapable of intercepting ballistic missiles. Israeli programs to develop ballistic missile interception systems, like the Arrow, were in their embryonic stage at the time. As it was, the only way to attempt to put an end to the Scud attacks against Israel was by the use of ground forces that would land in the Scud launching area. (They had been located by then.) It was such an operation, the landing of commando units in the area, to be supported by attack helicopters and provided with air cover, that I had asked the IDF to prepare. They were ready to go after the third week of the war. Since the next Scud attack might cause extensive loss of life or might even contain a chemical warhead, I was convinced there was no time to waste, despite the dangers entailed in landing troops hundreds of kilometers from our bases. The IDF commanders charged with the operation were confident in their ability to attain the desired objective. The operation required coordination with the US aerial forces operating in Iraq to avoid incidents between Israeli and America aircraft.

Bush continued to adamantly oppose any Israeli military action, and Shamir hesitated. When I finally got him to call Bush to inform him that he was sending me to Washington to discuss coordination with the American military in advance of an Israeli action, over three weeks had passed since the war began. When I met him surrounded by his staff in the Oval Office on February 11, 1991, the president was polite but stern. He had been misinformed that the Patriots were successful in intercepting the Scuds over Israel, and saw no need for an Israeli action.

“What can your air force do that the US air force cannot do?” he threw at me. I did not want to provide details of our planned operation, and simply suggested that we would be using other means. From there I met with the secretary of defense Dick Cheney and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to tell them that we would have take action before an another attack caused extensive damage and loss of life. Cheney said that were we to act US forces would leave the area to us.

On my return to Israel our preparations moved into high gear, but Shamir was still hesitating. I felt sure that should a Scud attack cause extensive damage he would give me the green light. But I said, why wait for a catastrophe? On February 27, Bush announced a unilateral cease-fire and the war was over.

SHAMIR’S THINKING was clear. As long as he was not faced with a public outcry for an Israeli response, that would surely follow an attack causing major damage and casualties, he was holding on in the hope that the relationship he was building with the US president would pay off after the war.

He was to be disappointed.

But what was Bush thinking? His secretary of state, Jim Baker, accompanied the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, on a visit to King Fahd in Riyadh on November 2, 1990, two-and-a-half months before the beginning of the war, to obtain the king’s approval for additional deployment of US troops in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the attack on Iraq.

He was told by the king that although they would not welcome Israeli participation in the war he understood that Israel could not stand idly by if it were attacked by Iraq. If Israel were to defend itself the Saudi armed forces would still fight on America’s side, the king told Baker.

So much for the danger to the coalition if Israel were to respond to the Scud attacks. Israel was not informed of this Saudi position.

So why was Bush so intent on keeping Israel out of the war? It seems that he took the position, so dominant in the American foreign policy establishment, that America’s primary interest in the Middle East was the maintenance of good relations with the Arab world, and that the Arab world attached great importance to the Palestinian problem, and that as long as that problem was not resolved Israel remained an encumbrance to the US-Arab relationship.

If Israel were to appear as an ally of the US in the war against Iraq, that was likely to damage the image the US was trying to project to the Arabs.

In fact, immediately upon the conclusion of the war against Saddam Hussein Baker launched a diplomatic effort that culminated in the Madrid Conference in the hope that it would lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It didn’t work.

Over the years the paradigm connecting the US-Arab relationship to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lost whatever validity it seemed to have once had. The drop in the price of oil, the “Arab Spring,” the Shi’ite-Sunni rivalry and the changing priorities of Arab rulers have made that clear.

On the last day of the war a Scud hit a US military compound in Riyadh killing 27 and wounding 98. Israel was lucky.

The author was defense minister during the Gulf War. His book In Defense of Israel, published by Brookings Institution Press, appeared in February.


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