Revealed: How close did Israel come to counterattacking Iraq in 1991?

Moshe Arens: I approved attacking Iraq in 1991, Cheney played for time.

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)
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)
Israel’s defense minister during the 1991 Gulf War, Moshe Arens, approved a counterattack on Iraq after it had fired Scud missiles at Israel.
However, Defense Ministry records newly declassified on Thursday regarding Arens also indicate that his plans were delayed by then- US secretary of defense Dick Cheney, who stalled for time.
The newly revealed records, which include interviews with Arens and with then- IDF chief of staff Dan Shomron, also appear to reveal that, behind Arens’s back, Shomron opposed the counterattack when discussing it with prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.
It is known that US president George H.W. Bush pressured Shamir not to respond to Iraqi Scud attacks, for fear that an Israeli intervention would scuttle the broad anti-Iraq coalition Bush had assembled.
The coalition included a number of Arab countries standing with the US for the first time, and was viewed as a coup by Bush both for fighting against Iraq and for strategic influence in the region after the war.
Past theories about why the right-wing Shamir heeded the request to refrain from responding have ranged from his agreeing with the US analysis; his feeling the US could attack Iraq more strongly than Israel; and his hope to curry favor with the US post-war on diplomatic issues.
But until the new records were released, it had not been revealed how close Israel came to counterattacking Iraq, including Shomron presenting a plan to Arens which the defense minister approved.
As Arens recalls the events, he was ready for Israel to attack and merely wanted to coordinate the timing and placement with Cheney to avoid miscommunication.
According to Arens, Cheney never told him that the US would not permit Israel to counterattack. Rather, Cheney played for time by saying he needed to check with Bush, then later by promising to send a US Air Force coordinating officer to meet with Arens, but sending him only after a delay and then requesting to send a different officer to replace him.
Arens said that these events occurred after the 1991 Gulf War had already been happening for a few weeks.
He approved a counterattack, thinking that even if the US did not approve – with the US already having clearly won – Arab states who might have pulled out of the coalition at the start of the war would find it too hard to pull out at this later point.
Cheney’s delaying Arens is significant especially since under George W. Bush, the former president’s son who was himself president from 2001 until 2009, Cheney was known for heavily supporting Israeli positions.
The records also appear to show Shomron presenting a counterattack plan to Arens and keeping quiet about his opposition, only for Shomron to privately recommend later to Shamir that he not attack.
When asked how he could present a counterattack plan and then recommend against it, Shomron replied that “it was two sides of the same coin.”
On one side he said his job as an IDF officer was to present contingencies for operations should the political echelon order an attack, and to carry out that attack if ordered.
Further, until that moment, no Scud missiles had caused serious casualties in Israel, but if that changed Shomron wanted to be ready to respond.
On the other side, he said that when asked whether the attack made sense, he suggested that the minuses of angering the US and possibly disturbing the coalition outweighed whatever gains might be achieved.
Arens, upon being shown Shomron’s telling of his meeting with Shamir, expressed surprise, saying that he had never heard about this and that Shomron had given him no signs that he opposed the counterattack.
“If he opposed, he needed to say something to me,” said Arens.
While previously it has been thought that Shamir stood relatively alone against his advisers in advocating restraint, it has now been revealed that Shomron was privately also urging him to shelve the counterattack.