Shamir Tells of Shock That Bush Left Hussein in Power
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said he and his Cabinet ministers “almost fell off our chairs” when former President George Bush decided to end the 1991 Persian Gulf War before Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was toppled.
In interviews marking the fourth anniversary of the war’s outbreak, Shamir and his air force commander discussed the Cabinet’s reaction to Bush’s move and Israel’s restraint when Iraq began pummeling it with Scud missiles.
Bush’s decision to end the war before Hussein was overthrown “was a big surprise,” Shamir said. “We were certain that the defeat of Iraq would bring an end to the rule of this crazy man.”
Shamir said that, when he and his Cabinet were informed of the decision, “we almost fell off our chairs.”
Shamir did not say whether Israel received U.S. assurances that Hussein would be toppled.
Maj. Gen. Avihu Ben-Nun, then Israel’s air force commander, said that a delegation of senior U.S. officials came to Israel just days before the outbreak of hostilities and offered the government four Patriot missile batteries as defense against Iraq’s Scud missiles.
The Americans said Israel would get the Patriots on condition that it promised not to attack Iraq even if it came under attack from Hussein’s forces, Ben-Nun said.
The Americans feared that Israeli involvement would break up the broad Arab coalition against Iraq, which fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel in hopes of drawing it into the war.
Ben-Nun said Israel opposed any conditions and got the Patriots unconditionally when the first missiles started falling on Israel in mid-January, 1991.
Shamir said the reason he decided not to attack Iraq was because it would have been too risky to fly bombing missions without coordinating with the U.S.-led coalition. Also Israel would have had to pay a high political price in Washington.
Shamir said restraint was difficult for the Israelis, whose military doctrine is based on swift retaliation. But he said that, if there had been heavy losses, or if non-conventional weapons had been used, “we would have had to respond.”
Hussein had threatened to use chemical weapons against Israel.