Potential Israeli retaliation tests U.S.-Arab coalition Baker holds talks with Israeli officials WAR IN THE GULF

January 18, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The prospect of Israeli retaliation for Iraq's missile attack last night confronted the United States with a grave test of its fragile coalition in just the second day of the Persian Gulf war.

With no deaths reported and casualties limited to six or seven injuries, Israel refrained from an immediate response, but its ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shuval, declared that Israel reserved the right to respond in any way it deemed fit.

As the United States expressed outrage at the Iraqi attack, Secretary of State James A. Baker III spoke not only with Mr. Shuval but also with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the White House reported.

"The secretary assured the prime minister that the United States is continuing its efforts to eliminate this threat," a White House statement said. Mr. Baker also spoke with ambassadors from the key Arab states in the coalition -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria.

The challenge for the United States was delicate: persuading Israel either to refrain from any response or to limit its retaliation, and making sure the Arab states stuck by previous assurances not to bolt the coalition.

Iraq had threatened to attack Israel if war broke out, clearly hoping to turn it into an Arab-Israeli conflict that could undermine the coalition politically in states still technically at war with Israel.

It did so after failing to divide the coalition by linking the invasion of Kuwait to the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Last week, Mr. Baker reported he was satisfied -- as a result of a final series of consultations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait -- that the Arab coalition would stand fast if Israel acted in self-defense.

He spoke in Egypt, however, and had one Arab stop left -- a meeting with Syrian President Hafez el Assad, the coalition leader most implacably hostile to Israel. After that meeting, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara bluntly warned Israel not to get involved.

A U.S. official said last night that the Syrian visit didn't shake the secretary's confidence.

"We certainly think Israel has a right to defend itself and that that right is respected by other coalition partners," the official said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israel's only Arab peace partner, last night reiterated an earlier statement that Israel had the right to defend itself.

Israel already had pledged not to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iraq, although officials said it took the Iraqi threats seriously.

The United States asked Israel last week, during a visit by Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, to hold off even responding to an Iraqi attack, leaving the response to the Americans.

Israel refused to commit itself to this. To do so would be politically difficult domestically, in the face of a tradition of meeting any assault with swift and terrible retribution.

There was nevertheless a willingness, analysts here said, to assess the damage from an attack before deciding to respond, to see whether a U.S. response would be sufficient.

An attack with chemical weapons, or one inflicting heavy casualties, would face Israel with heavy domestic pressure to respond regardless of the effect on the coalition.

A response could also involve Jordan, which has vowed to try to shoot down Israeli planes violating its airspace in a counterattack on Iraq.

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