SHOULD ISRAEL RETALIATE?

By Avi Davis

There is a story told about Yitzhak Shamir's first encounter with James Baker immediately following the Gulf War. Approaching the Israeli prime minister with his hand outstretched, Baker, not known for his affability, exuded: Mr. Prime Minister, America, owes you a debt of gratitude for your perseverance in not retaliating against Iraq. Shamir looked at the hand then up into Baker's eyes and said tersely: You should know, Mr. Secretary, that being hit by 39 scud missiles makes a people look at the world in a very different way .

Although perhaps apocryphal, the statement nevertheless speaks volumes about Israel's attitude to the issue of retaliation. No one in Israel needs to be reminded of the frustration of absorbing six weeks of attacks, spending hours locked in dank, lightless bomb shelters, donning gas masks for protection and the feeling that they were paying the price for a war they did not start and for attacks to which they could not respond.

It cannot be too surprising then, that Israel is holding its cards close to its chest when it comes to assurances about its retaliatory intentions. During the Gulf War the first George Bush, according to then Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, did not request, but actually demanded that the Shamir Government not retaliate. Placating Israeli fears, Bush's military men assured Shamir that the Scud missile launchers would be found and destroyed. But the U.S. military, despite its reputed sophistication, was unable to locate even one of the launchers and the Scuds continued to batter the Israeli heartland.

Notwithstanding this catastrophe of reconnaissance, the United States failed, abjectly, to fulfill what it had more or less assured Israel as its primary military objective - the elimination of the Iraqi menace. The Shamir government had accepted the Bush calculation that Saddam Hussein would fall from power and if not removed by internal putsch, then would be delivered by American military intervention. But a decade later Saddam Hussein is not only still in power, but can be found fomenting terrorism in Israel itself though both a network of provocateurs and a system of cash back rewards for homicide bombers.

The Israelis also expected political rewards to follow their willing sacrifices on behalf of the U.S. military campaign. It is forgotten by no one that the last Bush administration was the most unfriendly to Israel since the country's founding. Shamir had virtually become person non grata at the White House. When in 1990, (prior to the Gulf War) James Baker famously admonished the Israelis: call us when you are serious about peace and repeated the identification of settlements as the major obstacle to achieving it , he turned US- Israeli relations into a bitter slogging match between lobbyists. Many in the Israeli political establishment therefore felt certain that compliance with the Bush Administration's demands would win them points in Washington and would convert a cold shoulder into a warm embrace.

But not even this panned out. The first Bush Administration, flush with confidence in its new diplomatic muscle, railroaded an unwilling Shamir into a peace conference in Madrid. The conference was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough, attended by the President himself. But it was far from achieving anything substantive. While it did bring the antagonists face to face, it also succeeded in revealing the depth of hatred for Israel (and, if we are to be truthful, for the U.S. itself ) in the Arab world. In the end, Madrid did nothing to jolt the rejectionist Arab world into acceptance of Israel. And when the party was over, it was Israel who felt left to pay the bill.

It therefore should not be startling that the Israelis are guarded about their likely response to an Iraqi attack. Monday's meeting between Bush and Sharon in which the President made clear his willingness to countenance an Israeli response, was a significant movement in position. But it is still fell short of a vital acknowledgement : That the United States has no better military, political or ideological ally in the Middle East. That the approaching war with Iraq will only be buttressed by the involvement of Israeli intelligence and military advisers who are both familiar with the terrain and skilled in combat against Arab militia. And that without a friendly coalition to protect from disintegration, the United States has no sound tactical reason to exclude Israel from a direct contribution to a military assault.

For allowing such an Israeli involvement would send a clear message to the Arab world: the balance of power has shifted. No longer will the United States feel beholden to perfidious Middle East oil barons who attest friendship one day and finance terror against US and democratic targets the next. No longer will it feel the need to placate brutal autocracies who decry supposed Israeli human rights abuses while subjecting their own peoples to manifest repression. It might finally acknowledge that the future of the Middle East lies in a quarantine of the region by a quadrilateral military alliance, linking those democratic countries such as Turkey, India, Israel and the United States, who feel most threatened by the export of militant Islam.

Seen in this context, the issue of retaliation is almost irrelevant. The real question remains whether the United States, in the cold light of victory, will be finally jolted, in Shamir's words, into looking at the world in a very different way.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and the senior editorial columnist for the on-line magazine Jewsweek.com.



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