Israelis expect attacks to go on, debate retaliation

January 20, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Missile bombardments of Israel are likely to continue even if its vaunted air force goes into action, Israeli officials said yesterday.

The debate in Israel over whether it should retaliate for those attacks has stumbled over the realization that its armed forces might be unable to stop the Iraqi missiles from coming.

Yesterday, some action by the Israeli air force seemed to be a certainty, the only question one of when and where. Public opinion and government leaders seemed in agreement that action was dictated by the missile attack early yesterday morning, the second in as many days.

"Israel cannot let it go without any reaction," the chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai, said yesterday. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens had earlier vowed, "We will respond."

By late last night, there was no indication that Israel had taken military action. But there was an announcement that it had received much-sought Patriot missile-defense batteries from the United States, complete with a U.S. Army crew ready to put them into action immediately.

These sophisticated defense systems are intended to shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles, with missiles launched from mobile vehicles. They have already been used once in Saudi Arabia to down an incoming Iraqi missile. There was no comment by the Israeli government on whether the arrival of the Patriots had been the price of a promise to the United States to forgo military action.

A decision by the Israeli government not to retaliate would carry a heavy domestic political price. Many here are convinced that Israel must respond as a rule to any Arab attack. And they recall that the government's reluctance to strike first at the outset of the 1973 war contributed to initial heavy losses.

Yesterday's missile attack from Iraq thus seemed to carry the issue across a political threshold in Israel requiring the country to order a military response. But having crossed that line, Israelis confronted the prospect that their trusted air force might be unable to stop the missiles with any more certainty than the U.S.-led forces.

"We believe Iraq will keep launching more missiles into Israel in the next few days," said General Shai. "We have to prepare ourselves and the civilian population for more attacks from Iraq."

Tel Aviv was struck by at least three missiles early yesterday morning. A fourth was initially reported to have landed in an empty area, and several others launched by Iraq may have gone astray. Early Friday morning, seven Iraqi missiles fell on Tel Aviv and Haifa.

There have been no deaths. The count of injuries from yesterday's attack rose to 17, all minor.

"We have to do whatever we must do to help secure the airspace over Israel," said the deputy foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. "I'm not going to say how, when or against what. That is our prime consideration now."

But it is a difficult one. Mr. Netanyahu stressed that Israel was not considering a vengeful retaliation, such as a strike against civilian targets in Iraq.

"We take note of what Iraq is doing" by sending missiles into residential areas in Tel Aviv, he said. "We don't forget what Iraq is doing. But retaliation is not our principal concern today."

That leaves strategic targets as an option for Israel. But those already are the highest-priority targets of the multinational force. Such targets as chemical weapons plants already have been hit and many reported to have been disabled.

The Israeli air force is acknowledged to be one of the world's best. But it would be at a disadvantage. Israel does not have the satellites and sophisticated reconnaissance planes that are being used by the U.S. Air Force to spot targets and guide the attacks.

The extent Israel is receiving satellite information is the subject of close secrecy here. Officials have hinted that since the Persian Gulf war began, they have gotten satellite information that in the past had been denied them. "Cooperation is excellent," said a senior military official.

The Pentagon acknowledged Friday that the United States was sharing intelligence information with the Israelis for the first time.

But it is unknown how much delay there is in transferring that information. The U.S.-led forces are searching for mobile missile launchers, attacking them whenever they are spotted. Israeli planes probably could do no better, say analysts here.

"It's very difficult to trace those mobile launchers," General Shai said of the movable vehicles that are believed to have sent the missiles to Tel Aviv. "The failure to [stop those missiles] should not be considered a failure of the allied forces."

The Patriot missile batteries offer Israel hope for another option. Neither U.S. nor Israeli officials said how many Patriot batteries had been delivered. David Ivri, director general of the Defense Ministry, said one battery would be operational by yesterday evening, with the assistance of the U.S. crew.

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