Israeli officials rule out pre-emptive strike at Iraq but warn of harsh retaliation

December 27, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- In messages intended to reassure the Israeli public and to warn Iraq, Israeli officials say that they have ruled out launching a pre-emptive strike against Iraq but that the military remains on a heightened state of alert and will respond to an Iraqi attack with overwhelming force.

In speeches and private briefings, officials insist that Israel is striving to remain in the background of the Persian Gulf crisis despite new threats from Saddam Hussein but that Israel will not necessarily seek U.S. approval before retaliating if it indeed is attacked.

If Iraq were to strike, officials say, Israel would respond with its own forces regardless of the actions of the U.S.-led alliance. By acting independently, Israel would be warning other Arab states, especially Syria, that they could not involve Israel in the conflict without being punished.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens sought to calm the public by telling parliament that Iraqi missiles posed a small danger to civilians. He said that despite President Hussein's threat to answer a U.S. attack by launching missiles against Tel Aviv, the military saw no need to increase its state of alert.

"We have remained at the same state of vigilance and preparedness for the past four months," Mr. Arens said. "We must steady our nerves, keep cool and look at this crisis in its true proportions, since it could drag on for a long time.

"If we are hit, we shall strike back. But there is no need for panic."

Israel's military has responded to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in ways largely unfelt by the public. While more than two-thirds of its potential manpower is made up of reserves, and extra troops have been deployed along Israel's border with Jordan, no branch of the military has ordered a general call-up.

Commanders acknowledge that the 30,000-member air force has stayed on alert since Aug. 2 but have not disclosed how many of its 55,000 reservists have been activated. "It would be foolish if we didn't take necessary steps to protect ourselves," a military source said. "The entire air force is waiting for what might be coming."

Until this week, Israelis appeared to be adapting to the tension. Mr. Hussein upset the calm with his threat to make Tel Aviv his first target, leading members of the Knesset to ask whether the army was fully prepared.

Officials are trying simultaneously to reassure the public and to prepare them for the worst -- by explaining, for example, that missiles, once fired, cannot be stopped but might not cause widespread damage.

Mr. Arens is part of a new chorus of ministers saying Israel remains confident of being able to defend itself against any combination of Arab nations and is taking steps to distance itself from any conflict.

Officials strongly hint that Israel has explicitly promised the United States that it will not be the first to strike. They also say Israel has sent messages to Jordan's King Hussein assuring him it does not seek to undermine his regime.

To give Israel maneuvering room, officials gradually have backed away from warnings that they would consider the presence of Iraqi troops in Jordan sufficient cause for a military response. Military sources say officials became concerned that Iraq would move troops into Jordan to tempt Israel into firing first.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, attempted yesterday to head off any panic by discounting Iraq's threats as part of the psychological warfare between Iraq and the United States. He also predicted that President Hussein would offer concessions before the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for pulling out of Kuwait.

"Saddam Hussein knows the damage he can cause us is limited, but our response -- our proven response from the past -- could be very harsh and harmful," General Shomron said on state radio. "I imagine he takes that into consideration."

In other developments in Israel yesterday:

* Three Jewish guerrilla leaders were freed after serving seven years of life sentences for killing Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. They were the last of 25 Jewish West Bank settlers freed after being jailed as members of a group that Israelis nicknamed the "Jewish terrorist underground."

For the last several months, the three men, observant Jews, had been studying at a Jerusalem seminary as part of court-ordered rehabilitation.

* Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian who stabbed and wounded three Israeli soldiers in the occupied Gaza Strip on the eve of his wedding, an army spokesman reported.

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