U.S. Reportedly Has OKd Israeli Retaliation if Iraq Attacks

Times Staff Writer

In a marked departure from the U.S. approach during the Persian Gulf War, the Bush administration has signaled that it would accept an Israeli retaliation against a devastating Iraqi missile attack, U.S. officials say.

In 1991, the United States successfully pressured Israel not to retaliate against Iraqi missile strikes even if the Jewish state faced heavy losses, fearing that such a move would alienate Arab countries and rupture the international coalition against Baghdad. If war comes again, U.S. officials say, they still would prefer that Israel stay on the sidelines if damage is limited. However, they would not stand in the way of a counterstrike if an Iraqi attack inflicted many casualties.

President Bush has said that the U.S. recognizes Israel's right to defend itself. And Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that although his nation would retaliate against strikes that inflicted mass casualties or involved chemical or biological weapons, there would be no need to retaliate if missiles fell harmlessly.

In private, there has been agreement that if an attack is not catastrophic but still significant, the two sides would consider the specifics and discuss whether Israel or the U.S. should respond, officials say. Such a formulation, they acknowledge, still leaves room for disagreements between the two countries.

But the American shift on the politically charged issue is the latest sign of how much more closely the U.S. and Israel are coordinating in the buildup to an increasingly likely war than they did last time around. It comes at a time of growing political pressure in both countries for the Bush administration to allow the Jewish state to defend itself.

In the U.S., Jewish American organizations as well as conservative Christian groups that are a bedrock of Bush's political support have urged that Israel be given a free hand.

"I'm not sure we could restrain [the Israelis], but I don't think we should try. Holding back Israel to help preserve a U.S. coalition is not the kind of thing a good ally should do," said Gary Bauer, a prominent conservative who has been organizing a pro-Israel coalition of Jewish and Christian groups.

In 1991, then-President George H.W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir were barely speaking and the Pentagon was trying to shut the Israelis out of war planning. This time, the countries are carefully collaborating on defenses against Iraq and together are preparing a special package of U.S. emergency aid to Israel that may reach $12 billion in grants and loan guarantees.

Although U.S. ties to Israel are long-standing, the relationship has been enhanced, experts here and in Israel agree, by the personal and ideological bond between the current U.S. president and Sharon.

Once declared persona non grata by the government of Bush's father, Sharon has seen his views on a range of important issues embraced by the younger Bush and his influential conservative aides -- from key aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the war on terrorism and the need to oust Saddam Hussein. Each government views the overthrow of the Iraqi president as the key to a sweeping restructuring of the Middle East that will make the region safer for the U.S. and Israel alike.

"These are two governments that understand each other and are always looking for ways to accommodate each other," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

As they have approached a possible war, the two governments have worked hard to reach an understanding on how Israel would defend itself.

Officials on both sides say the chances of a successful Iraqi strike against Israel are not great. Though Hussein's forces hit Israel with 39 Scud missiles in 1991, killing two people, and fired about 50 more at other nations, they are believed to have no more than a few dozen of the missiles left. The U.S. and Israel also have better antimissile systems and ways of finding the Iraqi mobile missile launchers that were so elusive in 1991.

Yet officials fear that Hussein might lash out in a desperate attack as his regime is collapsing, and Israel might be his target of choice.

In 1991, U.S. Central Command chief Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf downplayed the threat from Scuds -- and turned out to be wrong.

U.S. officials are determined not to be preoccupied with worries about an Israeli intervention, as was the first Bush administration in 1991. Then, Secretary of State James A. Baker III spent more time during the opening days of the war managing the issue than on any other problem, he later wrote in his memoirs.

Yet the two countries have had strong views on the subject. And it seemed last fall that they were headed for a collision.

It has been clear for years that the Israelis would insist on the right to retaliate if a new Iraqi threat arose, veteran diplomats say.

Edward S. Walker Jr., who was ambassador to Israel from 1997 to 1999 and is now president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that during his tour of duty in Israel the U.S. government "was never able to extract a promise from them not to retaliate if weapons of mass destruction were used."

After the Gulf War, Israeli military strategists and many political leaders said the country's failure to strike back weakened Israel's deterrent against hostile neighbors. Sharon declared last fall that Israel, in keeping with its tradition, would strike back forcefully if attacked in a new war.

U.S. officials initially said an Israeli response would be a mistake.

"There's no doubt in my mind but that it would be in Israel's overwhelming interest not to get involved," Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress on Sept. 19.

Since then, however, the two sides have softened their words. U.S. officials have made it clear in negotiations with their Israeli counterparts that if Israel retaliates, the counterattack should not be so massive that it drives away Arab allies and should not create the risk of accidents over the battlefield with U.S. warplanes.

In all cases, "there would be a lot of conversations, going up to the highest levels, as soon as possible," said one Israeli official, who asked not to be identified.

U.S. officials said they would urge the Israelis to pick targets closely associated with the Iraqi military or the regime -- such as command posts and weapons depots -- rather than civilian infrastructure.

American authorities are eager to limit damage to civilian targets, both because they hope to rebuild quickly once war ends and want to build support for the U.S. effort among Iraqi citizens and other Muslims.

So far, the Pentagon has been unwilling to take one step that would make it easier for the Israelis to retaliate. U.S. officials say they have not provided secret electronic codes that Israeli warplanes would need to emit so that U.S. and British warplanes could identify them as "friendlies" while they crossed allied-controlled airspace. If the Israeli planes don't emit the signals, allied planes might mistakenly fire on them.

Just as in 1991, when they refused to provide the codes, officials fear that doing so could tempt the Israelis to respond. But officials acknowledge that they can quickly hand over the codes if Israel is hit hard.

Still, experts and government officials in both countries say it may be tricky to decide whether Israel should strike -- and what it could go after.

Sharon has said that he would retaliate if the Iraqis used a chemical or biological warhead. But would Israel retaliate if such a warhead broke up in flight, or struck an uninhabited part of the desert and hurt no one?

And how could Israel carry out a strike if it were hit at a moment when U.S. forces had already swarmed into Iraq and were battling on the outskirts of Baghdad? said Eitan Barak, a disarmament specialist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"What will Israel do? Bomb the desert, although it's already occupied by American forces?" Barak said. "In certain circumstances, what can you do?"

U.S. and Israeli forces have been doing all they can together since the Gulf War to improve defenses in hopes that these issues never come up.

Israel has developed a $2-billion Arrow-2 missile defense system, half of which was funded by the U.S. And the U.S. has poured billions into developing a more effective version of the Patriot antimissile system that largely failed to stop Scuds in 1991.

Israel is now dotted with Patriot batteries: four of its own, three sent in January by the Pentagon, along with 600 U.S. troops, and two more lent by the Germans, according to Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

U.S. Special Forces troops have been scouting the deserts of western Iraq, from which any Scuds aimed at Israel would be fired, U.S. defense officials acknowledged this month. Israeli forces also have been active there, according to news reports from the region.

The Pentagon has promised that it will notify Israel before it starts a war and, with constant satellite coverage of western Iraq, it would be able to warn the Jewish state of a missile launch in the first two minutes of the seven-minute flight, Heller said.

The close collaboration reflects in part the strength of the relationship between Bush and Sharon.

When Sharon was elected in 2001, many observers thought that he'd be "a bumbling prime minister" who would mishandle relationships with other world leaders such as Bush, said Jon B. Alterman, a former State Department official who is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Instead, Sharon's blunt candor appealed to Bush, and the two were drawn together by their common view that terrorism was the greatest threat facing their societies.

The friendship is also an important reason why Israel -- already the largest U.S. aid recipient at $3 billion a year -- is likely to get most, if not all, of the special aid package proposed for it, which includes $4 billion in direct support and $8 billion in loan guarantees.

Bush and Sharon "have similar worldviews, which say basically that if somebody's trying to kick you, don't spend too much time trying to figure out why," Heller said.

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Times staff writers Megan K. Stack in Jerusalem and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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