JERUSALEM, JAN. 12 -- With the Middle East on the brink of war, Israel's leadership is maintaining the position that the country's best course is to absorb any first strike from Iraq and accept the civilian casualties it may cause, rather than launch a preemptive attack against Baghdad.
While Israel does not rule out the possibility of retaliating after an Iraqi strike, the policy of waiting, quietly acknowledged by senior government officials, is antithetical to Israel's tradition of aggressively defending its own people and territory against any military threat.
But in the complex balance of interests pressing Israel in the Persian Gulf crisis, the risks of absorbing an Iraqi missile or bomber strike rather than launch a preemptive strike or take other action to stop it are outweighed by larger strategic and political concerns, officials say.
Israel's overriding priority in the crisis, officials say, remains the elimination of Iraq's missile force and non-conventional weapons, which Israel has come to regard as an unacceptable menace. But the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is reluctant to assign that task to the powerful Israeli air force because of the risk that the current confrontation between Iraq and a U.S.-led alliance will be transformed into an Israeli-Arab war.
Neither does Israel want a negotiated settlement of the gulf crisis, although its leaders are reluctant to say so publicly. Israel fears a settlement would leave the Iraqi arsenal intact, invite linkage between the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and Israel's control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and make inevitable a future Middle East war in which Israel, rather than the United States, would have to face Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Shamir's right-wing government also strongly opposes a Middle East peace conference suggested by the European Community as a way of resolving the region's conflicts, including the gulf crisis.
That means that Israel must now wait, hoping that U.S. forces will act, even though Iraq has explicitly promised to attack Israel at the beginning of any conflict.
"It's obvious to us that we will have to take the first strike," said a senior government official, expanding on the government's public declarations that it will not take preemptive action against Iraq. "It's not easy, but that is the price we will have to pay."
Israel's stance has meant a test for the usually strong nerves of its 4.8 million citizens, who are facing the prospect of the first Arab military strike on civilians inside Israel since the country's 1948 war of independence. At the urging of civil defense officials, people around the country have begun making preparations to survive bomb or chemical weapons attacks, sealing off rooms in their homes, packing in supplies and practicing with army-issued gas masks.
"The hard thing is being in this waiting game," said Alan Schneider, an Israeli lawyer who is director of the B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem. "We are forced to follow every twist and turn of the crisis, every meeting, with a fixed attention, because we might suddenly have to prepare for an attack. It makes people really anxious."
The government's strategy has also raised delicate issues of coordination with the United States as well as of military strategy. Israel's waiting posture means that it is largely dependent on the United States to warn it and protect it from any Iraqi missile strike. And if the attack comes, Israel will have to calibrate its response in such a way that it punishes Iraq without undermining the U.S. war effort by triggering a broader Arab-Israeli conflict, officials say.
Israeli officials continue to protest the absence of detailed operational coordination between their military and U.S. forces in the gulf. In the event of an Iraqi strike on Israel, military officials say, there may be nothing to prevent Israeli and U.S. planes from interfering with each other and even clashing by mistake as they separately strike the same Iraqi targets.
In an apparent effort to improve U.S.-Israeli coordination, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger arrived here today and dined this evening with Shamir at the prime minister's residence. Eagleburger, who will meet with other senior Israeli officials Sunday, is expected to urge Shamir's government not to carry out military action on its own. But Israeli officials say they will answer with demands that communications and operational tactics between the two countries' military commanders be arranged.
Despite the prodding from the United States, senior government officials insist that Israel must respond itself if Iraq attacks. An automatic counterattack, they say, is the inevitable flip side of the government's decision to accept a first strike. Said one government official, who asked not to be named: "This government would never be able to explain to Israelis why it allowed them to be attacked, then didn't even respond to the attack. It would be political suicide here."
The hardest aspect of Israel's stance is the army's judgment, which has been openly communicated to the public, that it would not be able to defend the country from Iraqi missiles once they are launched. Although Israel recently received two batteries of U.S. Patriot air defense missiles, the systems will not be fully equipped for use against incoming missiles for several more months.
Some experts believe that U.S. satellite surveillance of Iraq, including the two missile bases in the western desert within range of Israel, could provide a warning of up to six hours before any missile launching, giving Israel the opportunity to prepare for an attack and the United States an opportunity to preempt it. In the event of a U.S. attack on Iraq, the missile sites are expected to be high on the list of initial bombing targets.
Nevertheless, Israeli military experts believe that Iraq is capable of landing a salvo of up to 20 intermediate-range missiles on the country, and could tip the missiles with warheads containing chemical weapons. It is also possible that Iraq could send a wave of its advanced Soviet-made SU-24 bombers at Israel and that some could make it through the national air defenses, experts say.
Specialists say that a single Iraqi bomber might do more damage to Israeli targets than a salvo of Iraq's modified Scud missiles, which are notoriously inaccurate and carry a relatively small warhead.
Air Force Commander Avihu Bin Nun told Israelis in a television appearance Thursday night that if a Scud missile landed on an apartment building, it would probably destroy only one apartment or room in that one building. By contrast, a SU-24 bomber could drop thousands of pounds of bombs, wreaking havoc over a wide area.
The Israeli air force, already the strongest by far in the Middle East, has been gearing up for months in anticipation of a fight, officials say. In addition to its regular force of 363 interceptors and fighter bombers, including 171 advanced F-15s and F-16s, the air force has taken many of its 80 reserve planes out of storage, called up reserves and booked hundreds of hours of extra flight training time for its pilots.
Squads of interceptors now circle over Israel at all times, together with electronic surveillance craft that are capable of detecting oncoming planes or missiles hundreds of miles away. At air bases, pilots wait in the cockpits to take off at any time. "It's costing a fortune," said one military official, "but the air force is as sharp as it has ever been. They feel they are capable of cutting Iraq to pieces."
Only the army's most extreme scenarios for a gulf war foresee Israel becoming involved in ground battles with its Arab neighbors, and as a result there has been no general call-up of army reserves. However, official sources concede that many units have been quietly beefed up, especially those charged with service in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, where a war could bring a new surge of unrest among Palestinians who support Saddam.
Some strategic experts associated with the opposition Labor Party have warned the government that the air force's response to an Iraqi attack could boomerang on Israel, especially if warplanes crossing Jordan to Iraq become involved in a battle with Jordanian air defenses. Jordan has already mobilized its army to defensive positions facing Israel, and Jordanian officials have warned that they would ask for help from both Iraq and Syria if attacked by Israel.
"Any response on our part to an Iraqi attack should not be automatic," said Aharon Yariv, a former head of military intelligence now associated with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "We should take into account whether we want to fight Jordan by flying through their airspace, whether we want war with Iraq, and what the actual situation is between Iraq and the United States. You can talk big, but think twice before you act big."
Government and military officials respond that Israel's response will depend on the success of any Iraqi strike. In the event little or no damage is done by Iraqi missiles or planes, officials say, Israel will probably limit itself to firing back some of its Jericho intermediate-range missiles or bombing the missile bases in western Iraq.
On the other hand, one government official said, "If we have a chemical warhead landing in Tel Aviv, or there are a number of civilians killed, then we will have no choice but to deal a devastating blow to Saddam."