Published on Saturday, August 17, 2002 in the Guardian of London
Israel Puts Pressure on US to Strike Iraq
by Jonathan Steele, Jerusalem
Israel signaled its decision yesterday to put public pressure on President George Bush to go ahead with a military attack on Iraq, even though it believes Saddam Hussein may well retaliate by striking Israel.
With foreign policy experts in Washington becoming increasingly critical of the wisdom of a military strike, and European governments showing no willingness to support an attack, the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, wants to make it clear that he is the US president's most reliable ally.
"Any postponement of an attack on Iraq at this stage will serve no purpose," Ranaan Gissin, a senior Sharon adviser told the Associated Press yesterday. "It will only give Saddam Hussein more of an opportunity to accelerate his program of weapons of mass destruction."
Israeli intelligence officials had new evidence that Iraq was speeding up efforts to produce biological and chemical weapons, he added.
Last night Mr Bush, speaking in Crawford, Texas, said he would consult with others on US policy on Iraq, but would make his decisions based on the "latest intelligence".
"We'll continue to consult - but Americans need to know I'll be making up my mind based upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our own country, plus our friends and allies," Mr Bush told reporters.
Mr Gissin's statement appears to mark a change of tactic by the Israeli prime minister as he sees Mr Bush coming under pressure to back away from an attack on Iraq.
Earlier this week Mr Sharon told the Knesset's foreign affairs committee that Iraq was Israel's "greatest danger" but Israel was not pressing for an attack. A day later, however, he met Israel's air force chiefs and toured Israel's air defenses.
"Mr Gissin is usually more alarmist than anybody else but there is no doubt that he is his master's voice. It is in the interest of the prime minister to heat things up a bit," Ron Pundak, director of the Peres Center for Peace, said.
"Mr Sharon sees eye to eye with the extremists in the Pentagon. He is a very cunning tactician. It suits him to speak like this at this juncture."
Israel has told the US that if Iraq strikes Israel with missiles, it will counter-attack. During the Gulf war in 1991 when the US managed to get an Arab coalition lined up against Iraq, Israel gave into American pressure and held back from any military action even though Iraq hit Israel with 39 Scud missiles. None had chemical or biological warheads and they caused few casualties.
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, defense minister in the coalition government, who is struggling against Labour rivals to lead the party in the next election, also raised the rhetoric. He told the newspaper Yediot Ahronot that Israel would not hesitate to retaliate against Iraq.
A poll in the newspaper Maariv showed 57% of Israelis supported a US attack on Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.