JERUSALEM, JAN. 13 -- The United States asked that the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refrain from taking retaliatory military action if Israel is attacked by Iraq, but the request was rebuffed, official sources said today.
At the same time, a U.S. delegation headed by Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger was unable in two days of intensive talks to finalize arrangements with Shamir and other senior Israeli officials on tactical coordination between the Israeli military and U.S. forces in the gulf, sources said.
"Consultations will continue between Israel and the United States," Avi Pazner, a senior adviser to Shamir, said after a final meeting attended by Eagleburger, Shamir and other senior officials tonight. Pazner said "Israel's position that it will determine its own response if attacked" had been "well understood" by the Americans.
Eagleburger and other U.S. officials in his delegation, including Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, refused to speak to journalists here, apparently in an effort to lower the profile of the U.S.-Israeli consultations.
However, a U.S. source noted that Shamir's rejection of the U.S. initiative had not been absolute, since he did not explicitly say that Israel would strike back at Iraq, but only that it preserved its freedom to act.
Nevertheless, Israeli officials said the talks had essentially served to shift the ground of discussion between Israel and the United States from whether Israel would respond to an Iraqi attack to how its response would be coordinated with the United States -- an issue military officials here have been eager to resolve.
Coordination between Israel and the United States in the gulf crisis has become an urgent issue as the chances of war increase and Iraq threatens to attack Israel at the onset of any conflict. According to a senior source, one reason that Israel's attempt to establish links between Israeli and U.S. military commanders has not been finalized is because "the Americans feel at this late minute there's really not time" to work out procedures.
Shamir's government has said it will not preempt the threatened Iraqi strike, which is expected to take the form of a salvo of intermediate-range missiles, but is insisting on its right to counterattack even if U.S. forces are already engaged with Iraq.
Official sources here said Eagleburger argued that Israel should not respond to any Iraqi attack because of the risk that Israeli action could turn a U.S.-led war with Iraq into a broader regional conflict. Jordan and Syria, a U.S. ally against Iraq, have hinted that they would intervene against any Israeli strike.
Israel radio quoted Shamir as telling his cabinet at its weekly meeting today that it is the prerogative of his government to decide how Israel will respond in the event of an attack by Iraq. "That is how it has been and that is how it will be," the radio quoted him as saying. His statement was backed by a number of ministers in declarations to Israeli media.
Shamir and President Bush settled several major issues of U.S.-Israeli coordination in the crisis during a White House meeting last month, including Israel's commitment not to launch a preemptive strike against missile bases in Iraq's western desert. However, the continuing threat that Iraq will attack Israel has raised new problems, especially because of the reaction of Israel's Arab neighbors to the prospect of an Israeli counterattack.
In recent weeks, Jordan has deployed its army in defensive positions facing Israel and threatened that it will try to shoot down Israeli planes that cross its territory for a raid on Iraq. Similarly, Syria has warned Israel against any action, which it says could "shuffle the cards" of the current alignment of Arab states against Iraq.
Israeli military officials have said they are prepared to deal with both Jordanian and Syrian forces, if necessary, as part of a counterattack against Iraq. Israeli planes would probably fly over Jordan on their way to Iraq, officials said, although they could skirt the country by flying through Saudi Arabia, passing U.S. lines.
Government political leaders have said Israel must respond to Iraq, if only in token fashion, to prove to the Arab world that any attack on the Jewish state will provoke an immediate and direct response. Privately, officials also have said the standing of Shamir's Likud party with Israelis would be devastated if it allowed Iraqi missiles to fall on the country and then failed to respond.
Military officials have expressed concern that in the event of an Iraqi attack, U.S. forces will not act quickly or thoroughly enough to prevent further waves of missile launchings from two western Iraqi bases. Israeli sources said knocking out the bases may not be easy because there are numerous targets to destroy and many of them are small, such as launchers and missile storage bunkers.