“An unbearably heavy weight” was how the late Yitzhak Shamir, writing in his autobiographical book, “Summing Up,” described his decision to refrain from responding militarily to the Scud missile fire which hit Israel during the first Gulf War.
“I can’t recall anything that stood in contradiction to all of my principles as a Jew and a Zionist, something which was totally antithetical to the ideology upon which my life was based, more than the decision I made during the crisis that preceded the Gulf War and which I implemented during the war itself,” he wrote. “Not a day went by when I was sure that ‘our non-participation’ in a war that was being waged so close to us, relatively speaking, would not exact a high price from us, ultimately a higher price than the one we had already paid.”
Shamir was not impressed with the international sympathy and widespread public support that was generated by his decision not to retaliate. He wrote: “If I thought that the circumstances and exigencies necessitated a different course of action, I would have done so without taking into account public opinion polls.”
This week, just days after Israel’s seventh prime minister died at age 96, Professor Moshe Arens, who was defense minister during the Gulf War, described a different Shamir. He challenges the conventional wisdom which fingers Shamir as the man responsible for muzzling an Israeli military response throughout the war, saying this underlying assumption is “a myth.” It should be noted that not only do Arens’ statements stand in stark contrast to the statements given by other ministers who served in that government as well as other officials who held senior posts (among them Elyakim Rubinstein, Shabtai Shavit and Ephraim Halevy), but they also contradict Shamir’s own recollections, which he repeated throughout the years since he stepped down from office.
In an interview with Israel Hayom, Arens revealed that during the third week of the war, Shamir dispatched him to Washington to present President George H.W. Bush with an Israeli plan for a military offensive in western Iraq. The objective of the operation was to neutralize Saddam Hussein’s Scud launchers, which over the course of five weeks had fired dozens of missiles on the Tel Aviv area.
On Feb. 27, 1991, just a day before the U.S. announced a cease-fire which effectively ended the war, Shamir allowed Arens to gauge Jordan’s attitude to allowing the use of its airspace for Israeli planes taking part in the mission. The Israel Air Force needed to conduct a “test” flight to determine just how determined the Jordanians were to prevent the flyover of Israeli planes over their territory en route to western Iraq. But inclement weather forced the flight’s cancellation. A short time afterward, the cease-fire went into effect, and the plan was shelved.
“I don’t know what decision the government would have ultimately come to if the plan that Nehemia Tamari [head of the Sayeret Matkal, the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit] was supposed to command would have come before the cabinet for its approval,” Arens said. “I do know that the perception of Shamir as the one who during the entire time stood in the way of an Israeli response is only partially true, because the story of the Gulf War has two chapters.
“In the first chapter, the first part of the war, Shamir did veto calls for a military response that were being sounded by IDF brass, and he wasn’t the only one who vetoed. Shamir and others, me included, thought that an attack was impractical for various, operational reasons. In the second part of the war, we saw a different Shamir. At my request, he telephoned Bush and told him that he would send his defense minister to him in order to make clear to him that we cannot continue absorbing more Scud missiles, that the Patriot missiles were not neutralizing the Scuds, and that we were planning an assault.
“We came to an arrangement with the Americans, whereby we agreed that they would evacuate the airspace over territory west of a certain longitudinal line so that there wouldn’t be a collision with their planes. The outlines of the plan included landing forces from Apache helicopters, despite the fact that a few days before that half the Apache crews who were supposed to land in western Iraq were killed in an accident. There was a clearly defined plan, but the war ended, so the plan became unnecessary and there was no discussion in the cabinet.”
The first Gulf War began after Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990. The U.S. was fearful of the prospect that Iraq, which was a growing threat to Saudi Arabia, would consolidate its control over a majority of the world’s oil supply. As a result, it formulated a response and, with the approval of the U.N., headed a military coalition of 31 countries whose task was to evict the Iraqi army from Kuwait.
The coalition included a number of key Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Syria. On Jan. 17, 1991, the coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm. Kuwait was liberated within 100 hours. Coalition troops also hit targets in southern Iraq. Israel sought to keep a distance from the action so as not to sabotage Bush’s wall-to-wall coalition, but then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had other plans.
Months before his invasion of Kuwait, Hussein assailed Israel in a speech during which he spoke of his desire to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons. A day after Operation Desert Shield was launched, on the night of Jan. 17, 1991, Israel was hit by a number of ground-to-ground Scud missiles tipped with conventional warheads.
The missiles were launched from western Iraq toward central Israel, Haifa and the Negev. In subsequent weeks, Israel was hit by 39 missiles. Heavy damage was inflicted to property. Dozens of people were either wounded or treated for shock, and one man was killed after a Scud directly hit his home in Ramat Gan. The Patriot missile batteries that the U.S. stationed in Israel were found to be ineffective and did not succeed in intercepting incoming missiles.
In the years after he stepped down, Yitzhak Shamir said that Israel was faced with three options. “We could have sent IAF planes to western Iraq to spot the missile launchers and destroy them,” he said. “We would have put our faith in the U.S. and entrusted it to destroy the launchers. And there was also the option – the most preferable one in my view – of a joint IAF-U.S. air force operation that would have been successful.”
Ehud Barak, who today occupies the post of defense minister and who at the time was deputy chief of staff, closely observed Shamir firsthand. He even accompanied the then-premier on his secret talks with Jordan’s King Hussein, which took place at the monarch’s estate in London. The meeting with the king took place before the outbreak of the Gulf crisis, and his Israeli guests were interested in gauging his thoughts on permitting Israeli aircraft to fly over the Hashemite kingdom.
“The king was adamant and unequivocal. He vowed to send his planes toward any aircraft that violated Jordanian sovereignty,” Barak wrote in an article which appeared in a compendium of pieces devoted to Shamir entitled “Kesela Eitan” (“Solid As a Rock”).
The decision not to respond or act during the war “was taken in the face of intense lobbying from a number of quarters, among them Defense Minister Moshe Arens, the chief of staff, the air force commander, and most of the ministers with a military background,” Barak wrote. “Shamir slammed his hand on the table, and said: ‘There will be no operation. We are not going to act at this stage. We will not give Saddam an excuse to sully the international and pan-Arab coalition that was on the verge of removing him from Kuwait.’
“Yitzhak Shamir was shrewd enough to succeed in extracting maximum benefit from his unpopular, yet wise, decision to accede to the U.S. request and refrain from involving the IDF in the military campaign in Iraq,” Barak wrote.
“On two occasions during the war, I was sent to Washington on Shamir’s behalf,” Barak recalled. “In one instance, I was accompanied by Moshe Arens, the defense minister, and the second time I traveled with David Ivry. The goal of the trips was to list Israel’s demands, and even when our operation was delayed, our intention was still to act immediately with our ground forces. We presented our positions, and we committed ourselves not to intervene militarily. The result was not late in coming: The coalition forces, particularly the British forces, launched operations in western Iraq which dramatically reduced the number of missiles fired toward Israel.”
Arens, however, sheds new light on the developments that unfolded during that tense time. “Even before the Gulf War, the U.S. sent two senior officials to talk to us and dissuade us from a pre-emptive war against the Iraqis,” he said.
“The Americans pledged to snuff out this threat [of Scuds] within 48 hours of the start of their military operations. They promised us that if they failed to do so, Israel could operate with a free hand. In practice, not only did they not eliminate the missiles after 48 hours, but they also failed to eliminate the threat after five and a half weeks of fighting.
“In the first half of the war, I was on the same page with Shamir. We thought that without coordination with the American air force, it was impossible to do anything, and that aerial bombardment in addition to the massive assault that the coalition planes were already engaged in would be like a drop in the water. Even the intelligence that we had at our disposal was quite limited.
“We didn’t photograph the area. The Americans wouldn’t agree to allow us to do joint reconnaissance sorties with them nor would they let us have access to their satellite photographs. In addition, the U.S., which was opposed to Israeli involvement in the war, refused to coordinate communication codes that would enable our aircraft and theirs to contact one another. Without these codes, any Israeli aerial operation was effectively impossible.
“On the other hand, the Israeli operation that seemed to be most appropriate was to land Israeli troops in western Iraq in order to hunt down the Scud rocket launchers and to either slow down or halt the launching of rockets at Israel.”
According to Arens, Shamir carefully considered this option during the second half of the war. At the defense minister’s request, Shamir informed Bush that Arens was planning to come to Washington for a meeting at the White House.
A cautious man
In his autobiography, Shamir wrote that “Moshe Arens flew to the U.S. for a number of secret talks,” but he did not specify the nature of those discussions. It is worth noting that Shamir released his autobiography just three years after the war. Nowhere in the book is there any hint or indication that he had agreed to an operation in Iraq. On the contrary.
“Our restraint was indicative of our strength,” he wrote. “It was indicative of the fact that we did what was in our best interest, at a time when we could not join the military effort against Iraq without entangling the entire Middle East, perhaps even the entire world, into further conflict.”
“Shamir was a very cautious person,” Arens said, which may explain why it was not possible to expect him to reveal his actual position just three years after the war. According to Arens, Shamir abided by a two-pronged policy: a complete veto on any attack during the first half of the war, and a readiness to consider the possibility of a ground assault during the second half of the war.
Unlike many other officials, Arens attributes Shamir’s restraint to other factors. “[Aside from the fear of] messing up the U.S. coalition with the Arab states, Shamir wanted to go in an entirely different direction,” he said.
“He was aware of the importance of adhering to the age-old Israeli tradition of responding to every act of aggression against it, and he certainly took into consideration the possibility that restraint in this case could cause certain damage to Israel’s deterrent capability against its enemies in the Arab world, but he nevertheless decided to exercise restraint.
“He adhered to what he thought were the really critical things – Israeli control in Judea and Samaria and strengthening Jewish settlement there, reversing America’s known opposition to the settlements, or at least minimizing that opposition. These were Shamir’s real important goals, despite the other important considerations. He assumed that Israel’s willingness to agree to the American demand would create some good will toward Israel from Washington, which in turn would pave the way for a greater understanding of Israeli policy in Judea, Samaria and Gaza in the coming years. The ends justified the means.”