JERUSALEM — During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Israel endured dozens of Scud missiles launched by Saddam Hussein’s forces, but refrained from retaliating because of U.S. concern that Israeli involvement would fracture the international coalition it had built against Iraq.
As the United States prepares for a possible military attack against the Syrian government over its alleged use of chemical weapons, Israeli leaders are making it clear that they have no intention of standing down this time if attacked.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday issued the starkest warning to date in response to recent saber-rattling by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, which has said it might respond to a U.S. strike by attacking Israel.
“We are not part of the civil war in Syria, but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond with great force,” Netanyahu said after huddling for a second consecutive day with key Cabinet members to discuss the possible ramifications of a U.S. strike against Syria.
Speaking at a memorial service for fallen soldiers, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said, “Those seeking to strike us will find us sharper and fiercer than ever. Our enemies must know we are determined to take any action needed to defend our citizens.”
Their comments followed statements this week by Syrian officials that they would hold Israel responsible for any U.S. strike. On Monday, Khalaf Muftah, a senior official in the ruling Baath Party, accused Israel of being “behind the (Western) aggression” and warned that Israel “will therefore come under fire.”
Syrian officials often seek to focus blame on Israel as a way of rallying support among the Syrian people.
Israel’s vow to strike back is a far cry from 1991, when Iraqi Scuds pounded Tel Aviv, Haifa and other Israeli cities. Two Israelis were killed in direct hits and scores were wounded.
Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a military hawk from the conservative Likud Party, bowed to pressure from President George H.W. Bush to refrain from responding to Iraq’s attempts to draw Israel into the fighting. The U.S. feared that Arab nations that had joined the U.S.-led coalition would balk at participating in a military action against Iraq alongside Israel.
“It was a very hard decision for us,” said Zalman Shoval, who served as Israel’s U.S. ambassador during the war. “But Iraq was a different proposition altogether from Syria. This time there’s no doubt Israel will respond.”
He said Israel acquiesced in 1991 partly as a good will gesture to the Bush administration and partly because it was unclear whether Israel would be able to retaliate effectively without U.S. cooperation.
“Today Israel is a hundred times stronger militarily than it was during the Gulf War,” said Shoval, who now works as an international envoy for Netanyahu’s government. “And with American leadership in the Middle East much weaker now than it was at that time, Israel does not have to give in to pressure from Washington to not respond if Israel is directly attacked.”
Israel is by far the Middle East’s strongest military power, reportedly with a nuclear weapons arsenal that it has never publicly acknowledged.
So far the Obama administration does not appear to be pressuring Israel to refrain from responding if it is directly attacked, Shoval said.
U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies have been sharing information about the Syrian unrest, including the apparent use of chemical weapons.
A report Saturday in Germany’s Focus magazine said Israel’s famed 8200 intelligence unit had intercepted communications among Syrian officials discussing last week’s alleged chemical attacks. It said the wiretap helped U.S. officials conclude that Assad’s regime was responsible.
A delegation of senior Israeli security officials, including national security adviser Jacob Amidror, arrived in Washington on Monday to discuss the Syrian crisis and other regional matters with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice.
Notwithstanding its reluctant restraint in 1991, Israel’s military has long pursued a doctrine of deterrence that includes swift and sometimes punishing retaliation when attacked.
In recent weeks it has demonstrated its adherence to that policy by striking back quickly after rocket attacks by militants in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Even when errant mortar rounds from Syria’s civil war have landed in the Golan Heights, Israel has frequently fired back to discourage combatants from bringing their fight close to the border.
In addition, Israel launched four airstrikes this year against Syrian weapons caches it suspected were about to be transferred to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
Israelis see the unrest in Syria as a far more direct and dangerous threat than the 1991 conflict in Iraq, hundreds of miles away.
“This time it’s on our immediate border, so the risk of fatalities is greater,” said a defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.