JERUSALEM, NOV. 7 -- Israel's government feels increasingly sure that it will be drawn into any armed conflict in the Persian Gulf and is disturbed because it has been unable to reach agreement with the United States about how the two countries will coordinate their military actions in the event of war, officials here said.
In recent days, senior Israeli officials have made clear that if Iraq carries out its frequent threats to launch a missile attack against Israel, the Israeli military intends to respond with a massive counterstrike. Some well-informed Israeli commentators have even suggested that if Iraq bombs Israel with chemical or biological weapons, the Jewish state may reply with nuclear arms.
But senior officials here say they have been unable to establish any agreement with Washington under which Israeli involvement in a gulf war would be coordinated with U.S. forces there. In part, senior sources here said, the gap in planning results from the reluctance of the United States to involve Israel in any way in the coalition it has built with Arab forces against Iraq.
Officials here did not detail what kind of arrangement they wished to make with the United States on coordination of forces. But they suggested that some kind of structure of communication should be set up among senior officials on each side for use in the event of crisis. They also hinted that Washington should accept the idea that Israel, if attacked by Iraq, will strike at a wide range of Iraqi targets in response, with or without U.S. backup.
"What we want to say is that we are going to maintain full freedom of action in the event we are attacked," one official declared.
The sources said the lack of cooperation means that, in the event of a crisis, U.S. and Israeli forces could find themselves working at cross-purposes.
"Let's say there is a launch of missiles against Israel from the Iraqi desert," one source said. "Our planes take off and the Americans take off. Who's to prevent them from attacking the same targets, and maybe shooting each other down? Right now we have nothing to prevent that from happening."
Officials said it was hoped here that the visit of several senior Israeli officials to Washington this week for regularly scheduled defense consultations would lead to resolution of the problem. The Israeli visitors will be cabinet secretary Elyakim Rubinstein and Defense Ministry Director General David Irvy.
In the meantime, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is trying to signal both Iraq and the United States that Israeli forces will have to be dealt with in the event of an Iraqi attack.
"In recent days we are once again hearing threats from Baghdad," Defense Minister Moshe Arens said in a speech last night. "Any attempt by Iraq to involve Israel in this crisis will be a terrible mistake on its part. If Israel is attacked, it will not respond in low profile."
"Low profile" is the phrase American and Israeli officials have used to describe the posture in the gulf crisis of the Jewish state, which has kept its own formidable military forces on the sidelines as the U.S.-led buildup against Iraq has proceeded. For now, sources said, military commanders remain content with this defensive posture, and do not feel Israel should carry out a preemptive strike on Iraq.
However, senior Israeli officials said that because of the virtual consensus among military and intelligence officials here that Israel almost certainly would become involved in any gulf war, its air force is already in a high state of alert, with planes continually patrolling the skies and others readied at bases for a possible counterattack.
Israeli officials said that in recent weeks, some aspects of U.S.-Israeli cooperation have improved. Earlier in the crisis, for example, Israel was disturbed because it was not getting data from U.S. satellite reconnaissance on missile sites in western Iraq as often as it wished. Now, officials here say, intelligence sharing has been stepped up.
Israel has continued to provide U.S. forces with intelligence, including detailed information on the movement of Iraqi forces and commanders. "We are giving them everything they would need to know," one official said. "Maybe they already know it from somewhere else, but in case they don't they are getting it from us."
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has threatened on numerous occasions that if his occupation army in Kuwait is attacked, he will respond in part with a missile attack on Israel. Iraq has positioned medium-range missiles at two sites in its western desert, within range of major Israeli cities.
If a missile attack occurs, defense journalist Zeev Schiff warned in the daily Haaretz last week, Israel's strategy dictates "an immediate and massive response to deter the other side." The need to quickly stop Iraqi missile launchings, combined with the militant instincts of the right-wing government, might provoke Israel to use devastating force, and even nuclear weapons, especially if Iraq launches chemical warheads, Schiff suggested.
"What we need with the United States is a sort of understanding that there are problems that will be discussed before there are any operations," Schiff added in an interview today.
"It's a sensitive question," he said, "because neither side wants to reveal its operational plans in advance or limit its freedom of action. We don't expect the Americans to tell us what they will do, and we don't want them to ask us what we will do. But there have to be, at least, some red lines."