Gulf War Saved Iraq From Nuclear Attack : Mideast: Israelis have been spared from having to use their ultimate weapons against a difficult foe.

<i> Avner Cohen, a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaches philosophy at Tel Aviv University; Benjamin Frankel is editor of the quarterly Security Studies, published in London. </i>

Could Israel, by itself, have defeated Iraq, knocked out Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, stopped Iraqi Scuds from hitting Israeli territory? Could the Israeli Air Force--a quarter the size of the combined allied force--have achieved air superiority facing Iraq on its own? Could Israel have blunted an Iraqi attrition strategy that used its Scud missiles as it did in its war with Iran? If not, what would have been the Israeli response?

Five weeks into the Gulf War, these questions conjure dark nightmares in the minds of many Israelis. The current war is undeniably Israel’s ideal case for fighting Iraq: Without Israeli participation, a coalition of Western and Arab states is methodically devastating the Iraqi war machine. And yet, even under these favorable circumstances, Israel has been struck by more than 30 Scuds.

Although the Iraqi attacks claimed only four fatalities and were of no military significance, the effect on Israel has been dramatic and painful. More than half the population of the greater Tel Aviv area had to leave their homes, turning the largest Israeli city into a ghost town. Schools were closed and many offices and workshops shut down. Israel was traumatized and terrorized.

Israeli military planners of course were aware of Iraq’s missile arsenal, having monitored the “war of the cities” during the Iran-Iraq War. But it is clear that Israeli leaders underestimated the threat of the Scuds, misjudged their impact on the nation and failed to prepare for them.

The Israeli failure to anticipate the effect of a missile attack was caused by three flawed assumptions:


-- Israel had great confidence in its ability to accurately monitor the military capabilities and deployments of Arab states and have timely warning in a crisis situation.

-- Israel has traditionally relied heavily on its ability to preempt an Arab military surprise, and on its ability to terminate wars quickly to ensure that their cost was kept low.

-- Israel was convinced that the inherent deterrence value of its nuclear capabilities and the pledge to use them to inflict terrible punishment would deter Arab leaders from attacking Israeli population centers.

These assumptions were revealed to be untenable by the current war in the Gulf, and their weaknesses become even more glaring if we consider what would have happened had Israel been faced with less than a best-case situation.

In the aftermath of the Arab summit in Baghdad last May, Israel and Iraq appeared to be heading toward a collision. Iraq’s determination to build nuclear weapons would have triggered that confrontation. Israel was determined to prevent Iraq from acquiring the bomb, while Iraq let it be known that it would retaliate massively if Israel repeated its 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility.

If war erupted, Saddam Hussein would probably have tried to break Israeli morale by using Scuds in a prolonged war of attrition against Israeli cities. Unlike the current war, Hussein could have devoted all the assets needed to defend the Scuds in western Iraq. Launching 50 to 100 Scuds a week would not have been beyond his capabilities.

Given the relative size of the Israeli and Iraqi air forces, Iraq’s size and the sheer quantity of Iraq’s air-defense assets, Israel could not have sustained air superiority over all of Iraq. Even achieving air superiority over western Iraq would not have been an easy task. Mobile Scud launchers are very difficult to knock out even with air superiority, as is being demonstrated in the current war.

Scud attacks on Israel, even under the worst circumstances, would not have threatened the nation’s existence, but its ability to function would have been seriously hampered. The situation would have been intolerable even if Iraq had used only conventional weapons. The different tolerance levels for punishment between Israeli and Iraqi societies would have made it very difficult for conventional Israeli retaliation to end Hussein’s Scud attacks on Israel. For Israeli conventional retaliation to cause sufficient punishment to persuade Hussein to cease and desist, it would have to be almost indistinguishable from nuclear reprisal. But such punishment by conventional means would have been difficult, if not impossible, to inflict without total air superiority. Serious consideration of the use of Israeli nuclear weapons would have been inevitable.

Hussein’s grand miscalculation in Kuwait, and his resulting inability to launch massive barrages of missiles on Israel, have kept the Israeli bomb under wraps.

Ironically, the heavy punishment Hussein has invited on himself by invading Kuwait has spared him the even heavier punishment that Israel may have visited on Iraq. This war has thus spared both Israel and Iraq the unpredictable consequences of venturing dangerously close to the nuclear brink. Israel was saved from having to face the dilemma of nuclear use, while Baghdad was saved from being the victim.

The war has pushed both Israel and Iraq away from the nuclear threshold. It is in everybody’s interest that this distance be maintained.