JERUSALEM -- The commander of the Israeli air force said in a magazine interview that the United States had a secret contingency plan in the Persian Gulf war that would have allowed the Israelis to retaliate against Iraq for its Scud missile attacks while U.S. pilots kept out of their way.
The commander, Maj. Gen. Avihu Bin-Nun, is also quoted as saying that Israeli pilots were ready to take off for an assault on Iraq two or three times in the first week of the war that began last Jan. 17.
"We were really on the verge of going," General Bin-Nun told the Israel Air Force Magazine in an interview.
The article jolted military and civilian leaders yesterday because the general also accused the government of creating chaos for the armed forces with foot-dragging and wrong decisions.
It was a remarkably strong public attack by a senior officer on active duty. General Bin-Nun, who is due to retire next week, issued an apology after being upbraided by the Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak.
General Bin-Nun maintained that the excerpts from the interview that appeared in the Israeli press had been taken out of context, but he did not retract them or say that the basic points were incorrect.
(In Washington, a Pentagon spokeswoman indicated that the Defense Department was not aware of the contingency plan cited by General Bin-Nun. "I just don't have anything on that," Maj. Janet Reese, duty officer at the Pentagon, said.)
On the question of plans for an Israeli air strike against Iraq, which fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel in the war, the air force commander said, "We had the political echelon's directive to be ready at a certain hour, but at the last moment we were told to cancel the mission."
The Israeli government, in a gulf war decision that still has many Israelis agonizing over whether it was correct, yielded to U.S. pressure and set aside the country's general policy of retaliating for any attack. To help keep the anti-Iraq coalition from breaking apart, it absorbed the missile attacks without any response.
It has since been said by some military experts that even if Israel had wanted to move against Iraq, it was shackled by a lack of access to U.S. Air Force codes. Without them, any raid against Iraq would have been risky because it would have invited fire from U.S. planes.
But General Bin-Nun said in the interview that the United States was ready to clear Iraqi air space if Israel felt that reprisals were necessary.
"Only lately have we learned of this American contingency plan," he was quoted as saying. "The Americans kept it a secret and didn't even allow their own air force commanders to complete it in full so that it wouldn't leak out."