JERUSALEM, FEB. 12 -- The prospect that the U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq will be extended has been welcomed by many Israeli military commanders, who say they hope allied planes can complete the destruction of Iraq's missile force and other strategic targets before ground troops launch the final battles of the Persian Gulf War.
But the potential delay in a ground offensive has increased apprehensions among some in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government who say there are great political risks in prolonging the conflict. The longer the bombing lasts, they say, the more Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may gain in political stature in the Arab world.
The contrasting assessments reflect competing priorities within Israel's government, which hopes to minimize the threat Iraq now poses to its cities but which also has a long-term interest in an outcome to the war that neutralizes Saddam's impact on the Middle East.
Israel has been one of the strongest proponents of allied war goals reaching far beyond the liberation of Kuwait, including destruction of Iraq's military potential and removal of Saddam from power.
Now, however, its military is concerned that Iraq will respond to a ground offensive by trying to attack Israel with chemical or other nonconventional weapons, officials say, and some fear a ground war will divert allied warplanes from hunting down the launchers Iraq has used to fire missiles at Israel.
"Israel prefers a prolonged air assault on Iraq," said Zeev Schiff, military editor of the Haaretz newspaper. "My assumption is that as long as the air assault on Iraq will go on, it will be better for those who are advocating the destruction of the Iraqi war machine. And this is compatible with Israel's interest."
A number of government officials, including several close to Shamir, say that by failing to inflict a quick, decisive defeat on Iraq, the United States may be opening the door to a backlash in the Arab world that would neutralize its military victory.
"Saddam is not fighting to defeat the United States in battle at this point," said one senior official. "He is fighting to win points in the Arab world. The main point is for him to show himself as someone who stands up to the West and sacrifices everything for the Arab cause."
"The fact that after three weeks he is still firing missiles at Tel Aviv -- this alone has a tremendous impact in his favor," the official said. "And what the United States has to take into account is that in the end it could have a military victory, but Saddam could win the political and psychological war."
Some Israeli hard-liners have expressed irritation at the allies' failure to eliminate the Scud threat and hint that Israel could handle the job more quickly and effectively.
However, other military analysts say Israel must support the U.S. strategy, which, though different from Israel's tradition of lightning offensives, is still likely to succeed. "If you take the narrowest Israeli point of view, in which you look only at the day-to-day situation, obviously the sooner the war is over the better," said Joseph Alpher, of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "On the other hand, if we want to succeed in our broader aims in this war, we have to play by the American rules. . . . Our best interest probably lies in supporting the American strategy no matter how long it takes."
"But," he added, "any military victory of the allies that leaves Saddam in power will give him a political victory."