Israeli leaders who eulogized Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lauded his decision to refrain from retaliating to the Scud missile attacks from Iraq at the onset of the first Gulf War in 1991.
But I believe the government's decision not to respond to the attacks on Israeli civilians was a grave mistake which had severe historic repercussions. For the first time, Israel transferred the responsibility for the defense of its airspace and the protection of its citizens to foreign armies. For the first time, Israel relinquished its legal right to respond to a provocative attack against it. For all intents and purposes, Saddam Hussein declared war on Israel, and Israel folded.
The claim that the US prevented Israel from retaliating does not hold water. Had the Shamir government really intended to retaliate, it would have asked to coordinate such an operation with Washington before the war, not during it. The US Administration, and President George Bush in particular, did not want Israel to attack Iraq, but it took such a development into account. The Americans realized that Israel could not afford to overlook the attacks. There is not a country in the world that would not retaliate to an attack on its civilians.
But the Israeli government did not tell the White House before the war that not retaliating to a continuous Iraqi assault was out of the question. Either you are willing to coordinate a response in advance, or we'll act alone and may disrupt your plans in the process, Israel should have said. In case we are not attacked, we will not join the global war effort against Saddam and the Arab leaders who support him.
Instead of seeking military cooperation, Israel made due with declarations. If Saddam dares to attack us with missiles, Shamir and the IDF threatened, our response will be devastating – one which will never be forgotten. Never? Saddam was not impressed by these words and attacked Israel without any hesitation.
In this case, his calculations were correct. Israel did not retaliate, the strikes on missile launchers in Iraq missed their targets and the British ground invasion yielded results only towards the end of the conflict. The special British forces fought gallantly, but had it been IDF soldiers who were fighting in their place, the missile fire would have ended within a relatively short period of time. Not only because the Israeli army is more familiar with the territory, but mainly because the destruction of the Iraqi missile launchers would have been the IDF's primary goal – as opposed to the American and British forces, which considered it a secondary objective.
I have no idea how Saddam would have reacted to an Israeli retaliatory strike, which would have probably surprised the Iraqi forces. I can only speculate: He would have stopped firing missiles on Israel. For Saddam, remaining in power was the most important thing, and a direct threat would have caused him to reconsider his course of action.
Shamir chose not to respond, and his government authorized this position. The commanders of Arab and Muslim countries took this as a sign that omnipotent Israel has no real answer to a long-range missile attack. So, they, said, let's develop our own missile programs, and in the meantime we can purchase missiles from countries that already produce them.
The arms race in the Middle East has entered a new, more dangerous and more expensive phase. Perhaps there was no avoiding it, but it is more likely that a firm Israeli response to Saddam's criminal assault would have delayed it by several years.