JERUSALEM, AUG. 8 -- Israel, which regards itself as the most important ally of the United States in the Middle East, has been reduced to a bystander role as Washington mobilizes forces to contain Iraq in the Persian Gulf.
Government and military officials here, anxious to demonstrate Israel's value as an American ally, have stressed in recent days that Israel would be willing to "look favorably" on any U.S. requests for assistance as forces are deployed to Saudia Arabia and the gulf. But the officials say no such requests have been received, largely because the United States does not want to be seen as employing Israel in a conflict between Arab states.
The low-key position worries some Israeli commentators, who say that highly touted "strategic cooperation" programs between Israel and the United States are proving hollow, a development that could undermine support for Israel in Washington. At the same time, military and government officials say Israel's present stance is the only one the country can adopt without risking an escalation of the conflict.
"The situation is dangerous and Israel knows that it's very important for the success of the U.S. operation that, as far as possible, Israel not be involved," said a source close to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Dore Gold, an expert at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, added: "The idea is to keep this front as quiet as possible and not let the whole Middle East blow up."
So far, according to informed sources, Israel's principal role in the escalating gulf crisis has been to provide the United States with intelligence, including information on the deployment, tactics and weaponry of Iraqi forces and background on their commanders. According to the sources, Israel's assessment today was that Iraq does not intend to attack Saudia Arabia, but instead hopes to win time to consolidate its hold on Kuwait.
Israel's intelligence assessment also discounts an Iraqi attack on Israel in the near future, despite President Saddam Hussein's threats to "burn half of Israel" with chemical weapons. Israeli intelligence says that while Iraq has chemical bombs, it is not yet capable of launching a chemical warhead at Israel by missile, and would face daunting odds in attempting an air attack against Israel's vastly superior air force.
Israeli sources, however, express frustration at their lack of understanding of the Iraqi president, in contrast to their confident readings of Arab leaders such as Syria's Hafez Assad and Jordan's King Hussein. "Most of the messages we gave him have been ignored or misunderstood by Saddam Hussein," said a senior military source. "It's difficult for us to understand his decisions. The major threat is Saddam Hussein's mind."
Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, said the strategic cooperation agreements between the United States and Israel, which were developed under the Reagan administration, were oriented toward joint action against a Soviet threat to the eastern Mediterranean, rather than an inter-Arab conflict. However, he said, Israel was probably preparing to play a backstage role of assistance to Washington in the present crisis, largely in logistical matters.
During past periods of tension in the Persian Gulf, when the United States has moved naval forces there from the Mediterranean, Israel has provided air and sea cover for remaining U.S. forces in the eastern Mediterranean, Steinberg said. He added that Israel could be playing the same role following the departure in recent days of the aircraft carrier Eisenhower from the Mediterranean to the gulf. Agreements between Israel and the United States also call for Israel to serve as a medical center in the event U.S. forces incur casualties, officials said.