Never have Israel and the United States had such close operational coordination on Iraq. As the anticipated American attack on Baghdad draws nearer, the U.S. military has been showing Israeli officials its detailed plans for preventing Iraqi missile attacks on Israel. But the reason for the U.S. operational largesse is clear: The United States does not want Israel to play any military role in the war against Iraq.
Despite the close coordination, Israel has not promised to stay out of the fighting. Moreover, there are sharp differences between the two sides on how to respond if Israel is attacked with nonconventional biological and chemical weapons.
During Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's mid-December visit to Washington, U.S. officials went out of their way to try to convince the Israeli delegation that the United States would do all it could to defend Israel, and that there would be no need for Israel to get involved in the war. The officials said U.S. forces would take decisive action to prevent Iraqi missile launchers from being moved into western Iraq -- from where Israel would be in their range -- and to destroy them if they are.
The officials promised that the United States would show Israel its plans for neutralizing the Iraqi missile launchers and allow Israel to comment and offer suggestions. Moreover, the United States said it would send 1,000 soldiers to Israel with Patriot missiles to back up Israel's Arrow anti-missile defense system.
If, despite these offensive and defensive measures, an Iraqi missile were to get through and hit Israel, the United States -- not Israel -- would retaliate, the officials said. The problem is that Israel and United States have a number of fundamentally different strategic interests in the context of the conflict with Iraq.
The United States does not want its ties with the Arab world further complicated by direct Israeli involvement in the war. However, Israel has domestic and regional considerations that make it very difficult to refrain from retaliation if the country is hit by Iraqi missiles, as it did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War under fierce U.S. pressure.
If Israeli casualty figures are high or if the Iraqis attack with nonconventional weapons, Israel's government will feel duty-bound to retaliate -- both to satisfy domestic public opinion and, more importantly, to maintain Israel's deterrent capacity in the region. Mofaz therefore refused to say what the United States wanted to hear and would not commit that Israel would avoid getting involved in the war under any circumstances.
On the contrary, Mofaz made it clear that Israel reserves the right to retaliate if it suffers heavy civilian casualties or if it is attacked with nonconventional weapons. However, Mofaz did promise that in return for U.S. consideration of Israel's interests, Israel would coordinate any retaliatory strike with Washington. That might be why U.S. military planners were smiling after the meeting.
In operational terms, the Mofaz commitment seems to mean that Israel would clear retaliatory plans with the United States in advance and would not attack unless given flying times, routes and friend-foe air codes. That would seem to make an Israeli strike dependent on U.S. approval. If the United States disapproves of the response, it could withhold the operational information, making an attack virtually impossible.
Israeli defense officials acknowledged that this could present a problem but said they are confident the United States will understand Israel's needs and will make it possible for Israel to retaliate if it feels it must. Then again, Washington would want to have a say on the scope of the Israeli response, especially since Israel and the United States openly disagree on how to retaliate against a nonconventional Iraqi attack.
Israel would prefer to respond itself -- and with great force -- to deter other countries in the region from following the Iraqi example. That could mean widespread destruction in Iraq.
"We would want everyone to know it was us, and to realize just what we can do," an Israeli defense official said. The United States, however, would prefer a far more measured response, one that the United States carries out and controls, because it hopes to rebuild Iraq and Iraqi institutions as quickly as possible in the post-Saddam Hussein era.
How serious is the threat of a nonconventional Iraqi attack?
Besides the possible delivery of biological or chemical agents via Scud missiles, Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials believe Iraq will attempt to send "suicide pilots" with cargos of biological or chemical weapons.
Israeli officials recall that in the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq planned a fighter-bomber biological attack, first sending three conventionally armed bombers to see if they could penetrate Israeli airspace. If successful, the plan was to follow up with more sorties, including one by a Sukhoi bomber loaded with biological agents. The plan never materialized because the first Iraqi planes were shot down soon after takeoff.
Since the Gulf War, Israeli air defenses have become even tighter, and defense officials said the relatively slow-flying "suicide planes" would be easier to intercept than Scud missiles.
As for missile attacks, the officials rate these as less likely than suicide-plane missions, because the number of missiles Iraq has and its capacity to launch them have been severely curtailed since the 1991 Gulf War, officials said.
Still, Israel is not taking chances, and plans are being considered to inoculate the entire population against smallpox.
The bottom line is this: Should an Iraqi missile or plane get through, and should the United States urge restraint, Israel would face an acute dilemma, because in addition to its operational leverage, the United States has considerable political and economic leverage.
Israeli officials said their U.S. counterparts have not made any attempt to place conditions on the $4 billion Israel has requested in military aid -- to help defray the costs of its deployment against the Iraqi threat -- on Israel's agreement to take a blow quietly.
Clearly, however, if Israel were to retaliate against U.S. wishes, it could find itself forfeiting this aid and being punished by the United States on the Palestinian issue after the war.
If it sits out the war, Israel might just be rewarded. However, it is unclear whether that would make up for physical damages to the Israeli home front and the intangible damage to Israel's deterrent capacity.