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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

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

March 07, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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