WASHINGTON -- While refusing to stay out of a Persian Gulf conflict if attacked, Israel may wait to see if American retaliation knocks out the Iraqi threat before deciding on its own response, U.S. analysts said yesterday.
Such a stance would preserve Israel's freedom of action while helping ease U.S. worries that Israeli actions could disrupt the anti-Iraq coalition, they said.
Top U.S. officials worked on two fronts in the last week to deal with the potential impact of Iraq's threat to attack Israel if war breaks out in the gulf.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III drew assurances from leaders of the Persian Gulf states and Egypt that the anti-Iraq coalition would remain intact if Israel responded in self-defense to an attack.
His deputy, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, went to Israel to ask that its government stay out of the conflict and let the United States retaliate against Iraq.
Israel clung to its right to respond if attacked, although it has ruled out a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. This is consistent with past practice.
The administration remained tight-lipped on Mr. Eagleburger's discussions. He was to return late yesterday and report first to Mr. Baker.
Marvin Feuerwerger, a senior strategic fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Israel's determination to retain the option of defending itself didn't mean that Israel would retaliate immediately, as it often has against attacks in the past.
Its response would depend on the nature of an Iraqi attack and the speed and scope of U.S. retaliation.
"If the U.S. takes care of the problem, they might not get in the fray right away," Mr. Feuerwerger said.
Much hinges on the nature of the Iraqi attack. "It depends on what hits them and how badly," Mr. Feuerwerger said.
"If they suffer heavy civilian casualties," such as from chemical or biological weapons, "they have to respond in a major way, in my opinion. I can't rule out anything," including nuclear force.
Alternately, U.S. intelligence may be able to pick up Iraq's fueling of its missiles either before an attack is launched or before many had been fired, he said, and the United States might be able to prevent much damage to Israel.
Israel's potential response is fraught with complications, both for itself and the anti-Iraq coalition.
A direct response by Israeli planes could drag Jordan into the war, to block Israeli violation of its air space. This, in turn, could trigger action by Syria, currently among the nations arrayed against Iraq.
Already, Syria has signaled that it probably would not become involved in any offensive action against Iraq but would use its forces to defend Saudi Arabia.