Guest Columnist: The first Gulf War through time

Since Saddam Hussein attacked Israel 20 years ago, we have seen a significant strategic change in how wars are waged and perceived.

gas mask 311 (photo credit: AP)
gas mask 311
(photo credit: AP)
Thinking of the past is like going through a time tunnel. We sit back comfortably, eyes shut and let our minds wander to days gone by. But when it comes to the first Gulf War, travelling through that tunnel takes on an exceptionally fast pace and eventually leads us to an opening. The meaning is clear. That war placed this country in one of the most complex situations it had to face since it was founded. The event is not just a thing of the past; it affects the present situation and will also impact our future.
On January 15, 1991, the American ultimatum to Iraq ended, and within 36 hours, the first missile launched from that country landed in Israel. For 35 days, the Jewish state faced a war of attrition in which, by the end, it could count a total of 17 assaults and 39 missiles. Since then, we have seen another war of attrition in the form of an intifada and two mini-wars in Lebanon and Gaza. All of these security challenges attest to the strategic change that has taken place over the 20 years since Saddam Hussein attacked our country.
Israel’s security concept, as established by David Ben-Gurion, maintained that because of its narrow size and its centralized population areas, it could not afford to absorb military strikes on its territory and, where possible, must take preventative action. At every opportunity, it must shift the war promptly to enemy territory. This approach worked perfectly in 1967 and partly in 1973, even though we did not strike preemptively for political reasons.
THIS APPROACH has become a thing of the past. Since the first Gulf War, we have realized that the home front is no longer immune, not to short-range missiles from Lebanon or Gaza, nor to long-range ones from Iraq or Iran.
This understanding was translated into practical terms with the establishment of the Home Front Command, the development of defensive weapons capable of intercepting rockets and missiles, like the Iron Dome and the Arrow, and the setting of new operational priorities.
It is clear that in the event of a future war, Israel would try to destroy any missiles or rockets before they are sent.
The Arabs were quick to correct this by learning the lessons of the first Gulf War. Now, the threat includes tens of thousands of missiles and rockets aimed at every square centimeter of our territory. No piece of land, from Eilat to Metulla, is not subject to this threat.
Moreover, with time, the precision of these missiles and rockets improved, and they are now able to strike strategic and tactical targets, and not just land sporadically across the country.
As an aside, I will note that the Carmel fires teach us that open areas are also not safe, and may indirectly threaten the civilian population.
The first Gulf War not only changed our perception of security but also affected our sense of it. During the war, I used to speak directly to the public, rather like an intimate conversation. In retrospect, it seems to me that I realized then that the term “national security” – the security of the whole country – described the personal safety of each citizen living in it.
People understood that they had to look out for themselves, and that no barrier existed between them and the missiles save for the house walls, the shelter they had built and their gas masks. Otherwise, they were exposed.
The state has since been required to recast the relationship between it and its citizens’ security. Is it really possible to deploy an Iron Dome over the entire country? Or at the end of the day, is it every person and family for itself ?
This was a conceptual revolution of thought – completely opposed to what we were brought up to believe and, in a strange way, it corresponds to the process this country has been through, from nationalism and collectivism to privatization and individualism.
The public understands now better than ever that the state cannot provide maximum security. It learned this the hard way, for example during the Second Lebanon War, while residents in the South experience this day and night. This is how an asymmetric war manifests itself, whereby missiles and rockets are pitted against our technological power.
This increases public distrust of the political leadership, the security establishment and even the military, as more people understand that security is a merely relative term.
THIS EQUATION also added a new component to the mix – national cohesion. We need to believe we can win, given the new circumstances. This faith has helped us in the past, and saw us through military crises such as the Yom Kippur War. We can only win if we’re socially and economically strong.
Things were not always this way. One of the songs popular in the 1950s was “guns instead of socks, tanks instead of shoes.”
Today, we must understand that a weakened society, one in which a third live under the poverty line, where one in five families is in need of welfare services, cannot bear the consequences of a war, especially given that today’s conflicts tend to be lengthy and many of the casualties are civilians. Our mental strength as individuals and as a society will only be realized if we close the social gaps; if we succeed in rallying the different “tribes” here around common values and ensure that our human, social and moral values are high quality.
In past wars, a military victory was enough, and on that front we were fortunate. Today’s wars, that have no beginning, no end and where victory is relative, are waged on various fronts: the economic front, the political front and even the public diplomacy front. A war plays out not only at the point of physical contact between us and our enemies, our territory and theirs, but has a global impact, in part because of the media.
This new war, rooted in the Gulf War, requires that we internalize the essential difference between it and its predecessors. It’s not another war over territory; it’s a war of public opinion and public consciousness at home and abroad. The factors affecting this war are not exclusively under our control. We need a comprehensive vision that would connect us and the rest of the world, and would require the collective efforts of the country, the new nongovernmental actors and each and every one of us. Communication on various levels, old and new, is the main means of etching into our minds and the world’s the desired result of this war.
Finally, a word about leadership: 20 years after the war, the world around us has changed completely. All of us understand the difference when we look in the mirror; we see that time has not stood still. However, if there is one thing that has not changed since the first Gulf War, it’s the need for a leadership that acts wisely, cautiously and responsibly. The “gray-haired” leaders of those times – Yitzhak Shamir, Moshe Arens, Dan Shomron and their colleagues – succeeded in seeing Israel in an international context and concluded that any intervention in the war would only bring harm.
If there’s something I wish today’s leaders would understand, it’s that Jewish wisdom saved us from the Gulf War and provided us with political and security achievements and a new status in international public opinion. I can only hope that this good old Jewish wisdom will also guide us through future challenges.
The writer, a Kadima MK, was IDF spokesman during the first Gulf War.