The Persian Gulf War and the Middle East Peace Process (1990–1996)
Yitzhak Shamir’s government was installed and the Arab-Israeli peace process was moribund by the time Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. The subsequent war further delayed efforts to seek an Arab-Israeli peace, and the United States deliberately excluded Israel from the international coalition established to respond to Iraq’s aggression, which included several Arab states that opposed Iraq, in an effort to avoid splitting the group.
Soon after the inauguration of the hostilities in January 1991, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, seeking to divide the coalition by diverting Arab attention away from its anti-Iraqi stance to renewed opposition to Israel. Israel acceded to U.S. requests and refrained from responding to the missile attacks.
Israel’s Position during the Gulf War
Israel’s reaction to the crisis must be seen against the background and within the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel remained technically at war with Iraq since the first Arab-Israeli war when it participated in hostilities against Israel. Iraq was the only major participant in that conflict that refused to sign an armistice agreement. It also fought against Israel in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
Iraq was among those Arab states that took the lead against Egyptian president Sadat’s peace overtures to Israel in 1977 and 1978, and Iraq opposed the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979. It supported and gave sanctuary to Palestinian terrorist groups. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), Israel grew increasingly concerned about Iraq’s growing military strength and capability and its potential threat to Israel after the end of hostilities.
The worry took a dramatic turn in spring 1990 when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein threatened to “burn half of Israel” and it became an open secret that he was developing a nuclear-biological-chemical capability. There was also concern that much of the international community did not take Hussein’s threats as seriously as Israel did.
Nevertheless, Israel was preoccupied during much of the year and a half before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait with other issues, especially the peace process and the usual political maneuvering among and within the political parties and the political elite. In the spring of 1990, the national unity government collapsed.
This crisis coincided with a large influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants that had begun earlier but gained dramatic momentum in 1990, leading Israelis to focus on the massive requirements of immigrant absorption. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and the end of the cold war led Israel to rethink its position in the international system and especially its relations with the two superpowers, as well as the implications of these developments for the Arab-Israeli conflict and for the Middle East as a whole.
The Intifada that had begun in December 1987 was continuing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and affected Israeli politics, economics, and society. It was a growing security threat as the level of violence increased and more murders were committed by Palestinians against Israelis.Strategic and intelligence cooperation that focused on a Soviet bloc threat had become a visible part of the special relationship between the United States and Israel in the Reagan administration.
With the end of the cold war, as signaled by the improved relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and then the breakup of the Soviet bloc, there developed a perspective that Israel’s role as a strategic asset had diminished and a widespread view that Israel was not relevant for potential actions in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait tested this perspective.
Israel did not serve as a staging area for U.S. forces, nor as a storage depot for military materiel, nor was it utilized for medical emergencies. From the outset, the United States made a conscious effort to build a broad-based international force that included an Arab component to oppose Saddam Hussein; it was also a diligent effort to distance Israel from such activity.
The obvious and stated objective of the United States was to avoid giving Hussein the opportunity to recast his aggression in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict and to avoid giving credence to Iraqi arguments that the U.S. military buildup in the region was to serve Israeli interests and that Israelis were directly involved.
Iraq accused Israel of joining with U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and of making combat planes and pilots available to the United States. Hussein tried to draw the Israelis into the crisis and thereby mobilize opinion in Arab and Islamic and developing nations against the United States. He argued that he would not withdraw from Kuwait until all issues of occupation were resolved, including the Israeli presence in the occupied territories, that is the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Although the charge of Israeli-U.S. cooperation in the Arabian Peninsula was patently absurd, it struck a responsive chord in much of the Arab and Muslim world. Israel was determined not to be used as a tool to break the coalition. Nevertheless, Israel was concerned that it was not a full partner with the United States in the crisis and that it was not part of the coalition. Israel sought to prove its utility, if not value, but was precluded by Washington, D.c.
In the short term, U.S. government attention was directed to such matters as reversing the Iraqi invasion, assuring the dependable supply of oil at reasonable prices, guaranteeing the security of Saudi Arabia, ensuring the safety of U.S. and other hostages in Kuwait and Iraq, establishing an embargo of Iraq, and creating the necessary international force on the Arabian Peninsula and in the waters around it to achieve these objectives.
These goals did not include a publicly identified role for Israel. Israel did, however, endorse the firm and rapid U.S. reaction to Iraq. It opposed the aggression against Kuwait as a practical matter as well as on moral principle. It also adopted a clear position to deter Iraq from moving west. Israel established a “red line” in Jordan, making clear that the movement of Iraqi troops into Jordan, by invitation or not, would be regarded as an act of war, to which Israel would respond.
The Relationship with the United States
Up until the Persian Gulf War, the Bush-Shamir relationship had been one of political disagreement on various issues with a personal relationship characterized by a lack of positive chemistry. In addition, the United States had criticized curfews in the West Bank and Gaza, the deportation of Palestinians, travel restrictions, and the establishment of settlements, and had focused attention on the other issues that had been the subject of discord between the two states, at least in the Bush administration.
Despite the areas of discord, during the Iraq-Kuwait crisis Israel concurred with President Bush’s approach. In a meeting in December 1990, Bush and Shamir accentuated the positive support of Israel for the U.S. response to Saddam Hussein, and Israel was assured that there would be no Persian Gulf solution at its expense.
The positive meetings and the congruence of the policies of Israel and the United States during the crisis helped to allay Israeli fears about the postwar situation. Israel was convinced that the embargo of Iraq would not work and that economic sanctions and UN resolutions would not remove Iraq from Kuwait and Hussein from Iraq.
Politically, Israel benefited from the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip generally applauded the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait, identified Saddam Hussein as a hero, and showed little sympathy for the occupied Kuwaitis. The Plo voted against the Arab league resolution opposing Iraq’s action, and Arafat openly supported and embraced Hussein.
The articulation of terrorist threats against American targets by Baghdad-based and Iraqi-supported Palestinian groups (some of which were Plo constituents) gave credence to Israel’s arguments about the lack of appropriate Palestinian negotiation partners with whom to discuss a peace settlement. These actions would make more difficult the Bush administration’s ability to restart the dialogue with the Plo that had been suspended on June 20, 1990, and to resuscitate the Baker initiative to generate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.