TEL AVIV -- As the Middle East braces for a war between the United States and
Iraq, fears are growing that Israel could resort to nuclear retaliation if it
is attacked by Baghdad, as it was during the Persian Gulf war.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his country would take "proper
actions" if it were hit again by Iraqi missiles. "If harm is done to Israel,
if we suffer casualties, or non-conventional weapons are used on us, then definitely
Israel will take the proper actions to defend its citizens," he said in an
interview with the Jerusalem Post.
The prospect of Israel retaliating against Baghdad with nuclear weapons sounded
an alarm bell with Richard Butler, the former United Nations chief weapons inspector,
who said yesterday that it is his "deepest fear."
Mr. Butler, an Australian who has called for the removal of Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein, cautioned that a military campaign to overthrow the regime in
Baghdad could escalate into an all-out war in which "Israel will use its nuclear
"If that happens the world would be changed beyond recognition and I would
fear that if that happens the state of Israel would cease to exist," he said
at a business conference in Hong Kong.
The possibility of Israel using its nuclear weapons, an arsenal that is not
officially recognized, but is widely known to exist, has become a hot political
issue, with ordinary Israelis, leading newspapers and national politicians debating
In 1991, during the Iraqi Scud missile attacks that hit Tel Aviv, few Israelis
dared to mention the use of nuclear weapons.
"Everyone believes if Saddam attacks with biological or chemical weapons
that we will respond with nuclear weapons," said Yaffa Sherf, a woman in Ramat
Gan, the Tel Aviv suburb that took the brunt of the Scud attacks. "We have
to defend ourselves."
Some political analysts have suggested the Sharon government has employed the
apocalyptic talk this week to deter Iraq and its supporters in the Middle East
from any strike against Israel should the United States launch an offensive.
When the United States led an international coalition to push Iraqi forces
out of Kuwait in 1991, Mr. Hussein's forces fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel,
apparently in the hope of rallying Arab opinion to his cause. Remarkably, although
many buildings, including several blocks of apartments, were destroyed, only one
person died in the attacks.
Under intense pressure from former U.S. president George H. W. Bush, who was
trying to hold together an Arab coalition, the Israeli government did not respond.
Most observers believe Iraq's capacity to strike has diminished since then,
while Israel's ability to shoot down incoming missiles has vastly improved. Israel
has deployed large batteries of Patriot and Arrow missiles, primarily to stop
attacks from neighboring countries. "There's no system in the world like the
Arrow," air force chief Major-General Dan Halutz boasted recently.
Despite Israel's improved defenses, there are fears in the military that next
time around, Iraq may rely on a low-tech drone or possibly a suicide bomber to
detonate chemical and biological weapons. Many Israelis also fear that Mr. Hussein,
with his back to the wall, might launch a final desperate strike against Israel.
The current Bush administration, while saying Israel has the right to defend
itself, has urged it to stay on the sidelines during any campaign against Baghdad,
even if it is attacked. The U.S. military has reportedly agreed to target Iraqi
missile-launchers pointed at Israel at the outset of any conflict, which it did
not do in 1991.
However, many Israelis, including Mr. Sharon, still regard the decision not
to strike back at Iraq in 1991 as a mistake. David Ivry, a former air force commander
and director-general of the Defense Ministry, recently argued that the country's
power of deterrence had been diminished by that decision.
Mr. Sharon suggested yesterday that his government might have a scale of responses
based on the severity of any Iraqi assault. "If Iraq attacks Israel, but does
not hit population centers or cause casualties, our interest will be not to make
it hard on the Americans," he said.
Mr. Sharon also accused Palestinians of exploiting the U.S. concern over Iraq.
"Their operating assumption is that the closer we come to a U.S. attack
in Iraq, the more difficult it will be for Israel to respond to terrorism,"
Mr. Sharon said.
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