Iraqi missiles strike Israel

Iraq’s Scud Missile Attacks

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles with conventional warheads in 18 attacks on Israel. These missiles caused extensive damage but few casualties. These were the first strikes of consequence at Israel’s population and civilian centers since its War of Independence, and Israel, in agreement with the United States, did not respond. The military impact on Israel was not significant.

While Israel’s existence was never threatened, there were important psychological, economic, and political consequences. The Scud missiles created a new and more somber situation in Israel and tested Shamir’s leadership. They also helped to confirm Israeli attitudes about Hussein; reaction in the Arab world further confirmed Arab hostility toward Israel.

The missiles validated Israeli fears and suspicions, but it did not lead to an Israeli military response that might have widened the hostilities. The factors that ultimately swayed Israel against a military response to the Scuds was the arrival of Patriot missiles—a tangible way to assure that Israel would be protected—and even more significant, the request and cajoling of President Bush in a crucial telephone conversation with Shamir. Shamir in turn was able to hold sway within the cabinet and prevailed against the political arguments and military perspectives suggesting a response was imperative.

The visit of U.S. deputy secretary of state lawrence Eagleburger was especially important in Israeli confidence in its restraint. In January 1991, both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution condemning Iraq’s attack on Israel and commending the government of Israel for its restraint and perseverance. The Senate also reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to provide Israel with the means to maintain its freedom and security, and the House of Representatives explicitly recognized Israel’s right to defend itself.

After the War

During the period of hostilities the Israeli government moved further to the right when the Moledet (Homeland) Party, represented by Rehavam (Gandhi) Ze’evi, joined the cabinet. Shamir’s domestic political approval rating and popularity increased during the war, particularly because of the decision not to respond to the Scud missile attacks. Israeli doves who were disheartened, dispirited, or disappointed by developments during the diplomatic-political phase of the crisis were effectively neutralized during the hostilities as the situation did not support their perspectives and arguments.

In the immediate aftermath of the hostilities Israel’s military situation improved. Saddam Hussein had been vanquished and humiliated. Iraq’s massive offensive war machine was virtually destroyed, and its ability to wage war against Israel was significantly reduced. This altered the Arab-Israeli, as well as the regional, military balance to Israel’s advantage.

Despite these accomplishments, the ability of Saddam Hussein to survive and to reassert his authority in Baghdad was of major concern to Israel. After the end of the Gulf War, Israel reexamined its military doctrine and security concepts to take into account recent developments and consider future eventualities in light of changed regional and international circumstances.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly on october 1, 1990, President George H. W. Bush had spoken of postcrisis opportunities that might develop to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. UN Security council Resolution 681 of December 20, 1990, had made it clear that an international conference focusing on Arab-Israeli issues would be a logical and appropriate next step.

After the war, the Bush administration decided to make a major effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Secretary of State Baker, in testimony before the U.S. congress on February 6, 1991, outlined the administration’s conception of a “new world order” in which the United States would “resume the search for a just peace and real reconciliation for Israel, the Arab states, and Palestinians.” In a speech to a joint session of congress on March 6, President Bush noted:

We must do all that we can to close the gap between Israel and the Arab states and between Israelis and Palestinians. . . . A comprehensive peace must be grounded in United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of territory for peace. This principle must be elaborated to provide for Israel’s security and recognition, and at the same time for legitimate Palestinian political rights . . . The time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Within months of the Persian Gulf War cease-fire, the U.S.-Israel relationship was again characterized by discord and tension, with much of the goodwill built up during the gulf crisis dissipated by disagreements over the modalities and substance of the peace process and other matters. Tensions developed as the Bush administration appeared to link proposed housing loan guarantees essential to settle Soviet Jews in Israel with actions concerning settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and responsiveness on the peace process.