JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Weighing risky military strikes on his country’s arch-foe, Israel’s hawkish leader sends Ehud Barak to warn the Americans in hope of getting them to step in with greater force instead.
The scenario, played out nowadays as the allies debate ways of dealing with Iran, also happened during the 1991 Gulf war when Barak, currently defense chief to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an almost monthly visitor to Washington, was deputy commander of Israel’s armed forces.
To judge by the recollections of U.S. officials from the period, the ambitious young general was persuasive in arguing Israel was primed to attack Iraq in retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s Scuds missile salvoes against the Jewish state.
But whether then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would have authorized such action, in defiance of Washington’s worries about keeping together an Arab coalition against Saddam, is a question discussed with unusual candor with Shamir’s death on Saturday.
That taps into a wider debate about whether Netanyahu, who has jarred the Obama administration by hinting he could go to war on Iran should U.S.-led diplomacy not curb its nuclear program, is serious or pursuing a high-stakes bluff.
In a eulogy on Monday, Netanyahu, also of the rightist Likud party, said Shamir had notified the Americans during the Scud salvoes ”that Israel was about to take action in Iraq“.”
Washington understood that “words and promises would not be enough” to keep Israel on the sidelines, Netanyahu said in comments reflecting his oft-stated message of self-reliance in dealing with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran should negotiations and sanctions fail.
According to Netanyahu and Shamir’s defense minister, Moshe Arens, the imminent and unilateral Israeli assault on Iraq was pre-empted by a Gulf War ceasefire.
But this was disputed by Azriel Nevo, a retired brigadier-general who served as Shamir’s aide-de-camp for seven years.
“As someone who really escorted him and was with him behind the scenes, I can say that he reached the conclusion that he could not carry out something that would be contrary to the Americans’ will,” Nevo told Israel’s Army Radio in an interview.
“The Americans relayed to him all of the time, essentially, ‘This is our war. It’s not yours, though you’re taking fire.’ And indeed we took fire. But what was said back then was, ‘Guys, don’t disrupt things for us - for the sake of our coalition’s functioning,'” Nevo said.
Differences between Iraq then and Iran now abound, of course - not least in the fact that, a decade before the Gulf war, Israel had bombed Saddam’s atomic reactor, while Tehran today is enriching uranium, a process that can eventually yield fuel for nuclear warheads, despite ever-stiffer international sanctions.
But though Netanyahu may see a greater threat in the Islamic republic, which has denied seeking atomic weapons, it is also more challenging for Israel’s military. While reputed to possess the region’s only atomic arsenal, Israel lacks conventional means to deliver lasting damage that far out.
By contrast, in 1991 Barak told the Americans that Israel planned to operate on a far smaller scale in Iraq, by inserting Scud-hunting commandos. Even that was too much for Washington.
“Israeli (transport) planes would fly over Jordan or through Saudi air space (and) the Saudis would never accept such an Israeli intrusion,” the top U.S. general then, Colin Powell, wrote in his memoir, which recounted the talks with Barak.
But Powell also acknowledged Israel could slip all restraint if Saddam attacked it with non-conventional weapons - a spur to a more forceful U.S. offensive against Iraq. “Israeli missile crews were reportedly on full alert. And who knew what they would be firing?” Powell recalled thinking.
Among those meant to lead Israel’s Scud-hunters was Benny Gantz, now military chief. Gantz has signaled readiness to take on Iran, but his predecessor and other recently retired Israeli security figures have described that option as hasty and dangerous - to the fury of the Netanyahu government, which says such criticism undermined its credibility with Western powers.
U.S. President Barack Obama, for his part, has like Israel not ruled out war as a last resort to deny Iran nuclear arms.
Speaking to Reuters on Tuesday, Arens described meeting then U.S. President George Bush at the White House on February 11, 1991 - 17 days before the ceasefire - to warn him about imminent Israeli operations in Iraq.
“He didn’t like it at all, but I didn’t go there to get his permission,” Arens said, adding that he followed the talks with Bush by meeting his secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, “to coordinate our military operations”.
Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Ralph Boulton