If Saddam attacks Israel, restraint is not an option

Yitzhak Shamir's decision to act with restraint and not respond to the Iraqi missile attacks in 1991 was the right thing to do. However, it was a one-time policy, under exceptional circumstances. If Iraq makes preparations to attack Israel again, restraint is not an option.

Under these circumstances, the Israel Defense Force must not be prevented from responding and destroying Iraq's ability to strike our cities with weapons of mass destruction.

Seven years ago, the United States led an international coalition, including a number of Arab states. In attacking Israel, Saddam sought to break up this alliance, and by acting with restraint, Israel demonstrated resilience. The physical damage from the Scud attacks was minimal, and the credibility of our deterrence was not damaged by the absence of a massive retaliatory attack.

The confidence Israel displayed by not responding was a demonstration of strength, not weakness. As a result, those Arab states that might still consider an attack, as well as Iran, have retained a healthy respect for our military might and our willingness to use it when necessary.

If, as now seems likely, the United States decides to launch a sustained air attack on Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, the circumstances will be entirely different. The United States is on its own, without partners or fragile political-military alliances.

This time, the United States does not need huge ground bases and support facilities in Saudi Arabia (which the Saudis have denied the Americans use of anyway). Similarly, Egyptian and Syrian participation is both unnecessary and unlikely, and therefore the situation is very different from that of 1991.

Most importantly, while deterrence was not affected by a single exception to the policy of massive retaliation, a repetition might have a very negative impact on both our security and regional stability. Another instance of restraint in the face of attack would constitute a pattern, and would be interpreted by at least some of the Arab and perhaps Iranian leaders as an indication of a basic change in policy.

For the past 50 years, our decision makers have created a strong and consistent reputation for what was seen by some as disproportionate response to aggression. After the fedayeen attacks in the 1950s, and the cross-border infiltration and terrorism during the 1960s, Israel retaliated with major ground attacks into Jordan and Syria and, later, with air attacks.

In 1973, when Syria fired a single missile at an air base, and the missile landed close to a civilian settlement, the Israeli air force responded massively, destroying the Defense Ministry building in Damascus.

These angry responses were quite effective in the long term. The Arab leadership and public began to understand that the costs of attacks had become too great. Gradually, the alternative, in terms of negotiations, mutual acceptance and, finally, peace treaties, started to be accepted.

If we are faced with another round of Iraqi missile attacks, even if they are few in number and "only" armed with conventional explosives and not more lethal materials, the response must be immediate and significant. A weak response would destroy 50 years of work, beginning with David Ben-Gurion, that created our reputation for deterrence. Erosion of this perception regarding our will and ability to retaliate would encourage further attacks, and undermine the gradual Arab acceptance of the need to reach negotiated settlements.

A strong military response to Iraqi attacks is also important with respect to our strategic alliance relationship with the United States. In 1991, the Bush administration pledged that if we acted with restraint, the Americans would destroy the Iraqi missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Shamir, over the strenuous objections of defense minister Moshe Arens, kept our end of the bargain, even as the missile attacks and threat of the use of chemical weapons continued. However, during the war, the United States did not complete its obligation, to understate the case.

U.S. forces apparently did not destroy a single Scud launcher. The war ended prematurely, with Saddam still in power, and in possession of many weapons of mass destruction.

Immediately after the war, the U.N. inspection process did much better, but for the past five years the Clinton administration has tended to neglect Saddam Hussein's continuous defiance of the U.N. inspectors. The current crisis and concerns regarding Iraqi chemical and biological weapons are the result of this complacency.

With respect to other potential threats in the region, it is important that the United States (as well as Europe) understand that in the absence of effective international responses, we will have no alternative other than to take action to defend ourselves. In 1981, the major powers ignored our concerns regarding the Iraqi nuclear program, and as a result, we acted unilaterally. To avoid such confrontations in the future, the United States and international community must act before our security is jeopardized.

If Iraq launches missile attacks again, the government should not show any hesitation. To strengthen deterrence, ensure regional stability in the long term, prevent future attacks, and maintain the strategic relationship with the United States, we must respond forcefully.