JERUSALEM, AUG. 31 -- Israeli military officials believe Iraq is now unlikely to launch any offensive action in the Persian Gulf and will strike at Israel only as a desperation measure during a war with the United States, a senior official said today.
In a briefing for Western reporters, a military official said Israel believes that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is now "playing for time" in the gulf crisis, gambling that the U.S.-led coalition against him will eventually begin to weaken. For now, the official said, there is no sign that Iraq is suffering seriously because of the economic boycott against it, or that internal opposition to Saddam has developed.
Israeli media today focused on a new threat by an Iraqi air force commander, reported by Iraq's state news agency Thursday, that Iraq would attack Israel in response to any military move against it by the United States. However, the official said analysts here do not believe Saddam will now initiate any military conflict.
"The Iraqis do not want military conflict with the United States, and they prefer not to initiate such a conflict," the official said. "But if attacked, they will react forcefully."
The official added that in Israel's view, if Iraq were attacked, "they will react by attacking oil fields in Saudi Arabia and possibly American forces. In the case of desperation, they will also react by attacking Israeli targets."
For now, the official said, "both the Iraqis and the Jordanians are trying to buy time, and the Jordanians are trying to offer some kind of political settlement, which will make President Bush's decision to attack Iraq more difficult."
Israeli officials have maintained throughout the gulf crisis that Jordan is acting as an Iraqi ally, and have strongly criticized King Hussein. The military official accused Hussein of "playing a double game" by publicly supporting sanctions against Iraq mandated by the United Nations and attempting to mediate a solution, while continuing to allow Jordanian-Iraqi trade and fashioning peace proposals that would leave Saddam with some political or territorial gains.
The official charged that Jordan is importing food and transporting it to Iraq in violation of the U.N. trade embargo. He also reiterated charges based on Israeli intelligence reports that Jordan is continuing to cooperate militarily with Iraq, in part by conducting daily air reconnaissance flights along the Jordanian border with Saudi Arabia.
Jordan, the military official said, did not carry out such reconnaissance before the crisis and apparently is now performing the operation in order to alert Iraq of troop deployments in the Saudi border region. The official said the sorties, flown this week by U.S.-made F5 jets of the Jordanian Air Force, had been monitored by Israel.
Jordan's state television tonight broadcast a denial of the Israeli intelligence findings. It quoted a Jordanian military spokesman as saying there had been "no change" in Jordanian air force activity along the Saudi border.
In another development here today, the Israeli military continued its recent policy of easing conditions in the occupied West Bank, announcing that Bethlehem University would be allowed to reopen. The statement cleared the way for the first major university campus in the occupied territories to resume classes since the start of the intifada, or Arab uprising against Israel, in December 1987.