Israel Plays It Smart

January 21, 1991

Israel is playing it smart. By refusing to retaliate immediately against Iraq's first missile attacks, it has thwarted Saddam Hussein's attempt to widen the gulf war and split the allied coalition right at the outset of fighting. Instead, Iraqi provocations have led to the stationing of U.S.-manned Patriot air defense missiles on Israeli territory and have actually solidified the anti-Iraq coalition.

Even at this early date, Israel's reticence appears to have generated sympathy for the Jewish state -- a rare commodity since the Palestinian uprising began. If the war to end Iraq's aggressive capabilities comes to a successful end, Israel could wind up with its security bolstered, its most threatening enemy cut down and its position enhanced in Middle East peace negotiations.

Before war erupted, President Bush went to great lengths to keep his Arab partners solid in event of an Iraqi attack on Israel and an eye-for-an-eye Israeli response. "I'm convinced the coalition would not fall apart. . ." he told reporters on Dec. 18. "You can assume the way I've answered the question that we've inquired about that."

The weak link in this formulation was always Syria. Yesterday, Damascus delivered a semi-official clarification: "No one can impose a war on Syria into which it is dragged by force and whose consequences would not be in the interests of the Arab nation and Arab rights as Saddam is trying to do with his theatrical missiles."

The Israeli side of the equation is more wrenching because the Jewish state has always had to insure its survival by asserting and enforcing its right of self-defense. This time the United States is asking its forbearance for reasons vital to America's own military and diplomatic position. Its concern is not only the allied coalition but the plight of Jordan -- a key player in the regional power game.

In a show of unprecedented military cooperation, the U.S. and Israel have agreed to station American GIs on Israeli soil to man Patriot missile batteries rushed in from Europe. Patriots already have intercepted and destroyed a number of Iraqi Scud-B missiles aimed at Saudi Arabia. The question now is whether they can protect Israel.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his top aides have reacted to Iraqi attacks with uncharacteristic forbearance, saying they will do what they have to do in circumstances of their own choosing. Obviously, if Iraq hits Israel with chemical weapons, the Shamir government would hit back. Obviously, if Iraqi missile strikes with conventional warheads go on night after night, despite the Patriots and American air sweeps in western Iraq, Israel could scarcely agree to remain a punching bag.

For now, Saddam's trap has not worked, our Arab allies are cooperating and Israel is displaying the "wisdom" Mr. Shamir has promised. This encouraging diplomatic side of the conflict is a huge asset as fighting intensifies in the battle zone.

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