TEL AVIV, Israel—With an arsenal of long-range missiles, nuclear warheads, special forces and fighter jets, Israel has an array of options for retaliation if it's attacked by Iraq during the coming U.S. war on Saddam Hussein.
Yet, analysts say, Israel will probably choose to sit on the sidelines and adopt a defensive posture, as it did in the 1991 Gulf War, to prevent fanning Arab opposition to an American-led war on Iraq.
"The first option, maybe the best one, is to do nothing," says Maj. Gen. Avraham Rotem, a decorated 1973 war veteran now working for a Tel Aviv think-tank. "If you have someone else doing what you want to do, if the Americans are in Baghdad, are on their way to Baghdad, are bombing hundreds of targets, everything else that we are thinking about, it adds nothing."
Israeli intervention is likely to be unnecessary because the Israelis are expecting U.S. troops to swiftly take over western Iraq—Baghdad's 1991 Scud missile launch pad—and prevent a prolonged bout of the nightly air-raid sirens that rattled the nation's nerves in the last war and punctured its sense of invincibility.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Israel used U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to knock down the 39 conventionally armed Scuds launched by Iraq. Israel now has an arsenal of improved Patriots and its own Arrow anti-missile system.
"We will not retaliate if we succeed in intercepting missiles," predicts Hebrew University professor Martin Van Creveld, who specializes in Israeli military strategy.
But if Iraq causes massive casualties inside Israel with chemical or biological weapons, Israel has several ways it could return fire on the Iraqis.
"If we are attacked by non-conventional means, Iraq will be wiped off the face of the Earth. And that's not an option I would recommend to Saddam Hussein," Van Creveld said. "This country will not take an attack by non-conventional weapons. We have our own non-conventional weapons."
Israel could, for example, send back a chemical weapon of its own, he said, perhaps nerve gas sprayed by drones across a wide region of Iraq.
But experts say three more traditional methods of retaliation exist.
_Warplanes. Israel's F-15 fighter jets are capable of reaching Baghdad without engaging in a risky air refueling operation.
_Missiles. Israel is reported to have Jericho II missiles capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional warheads to Iraq, as well as submarine-launched cruise missiles. Israelis are forbidden to confirm the existence or details of the state's nuclear capacity. But Rotem says if worse came to worst, it can deploy a "Judgment Day weapon."
_Commandos. Trained for a specific target and armed with sound intelligence, Israeli experts say, Israel can dispatch special forces to Iraq on attack helicopters over neighboring Jordan to carry out a surgical strike like the assassinations of PLO leaders it has carried out in Lebanon and elsewhere. Analysts describe this as the least likely option, saying the commandos are usually deployed for pre-emptive strikes or secret behind-the-lines operations. But U.S. Special Forces, reportedly already at work in Iraq for weeks, if not months, can fill that role.
Whatever the option, the experts predict that Israel would expect at least a wink and a nod from Washington for an operation in response to an Iraqi chemical or biological attack—if not outright American approval.
"If there will be a chemical or biological warhead, then we should retaliate because this is a new game in the Middle East: Non-conventional warheads," says Tel Aviv University Professor Reuven Pedatzur, one of Israel's leading experts on security issues. "We won't do it without American approval. If there will be a lot of casualties in Israel we will do it and they will agree to it."
Adds Rotem: "I'm sure that there might be a debate between the two sides over if what really happened is worth an Israeli retaliation. There might be differences between the two sides. But if America sees the determination in the Israeli side is absolute, and there is no way to prevent it, I believe they will cooperate on the other side."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.