Myths & Facts Online
The Gulf Wars
1991 Gulf War was fought for Israel.
“The 1991 Gulf War was fought for Israel.”
Prior to President George Bush’s announcement of Operation Desert Storm, critics of Israel were claiming the Jewish State and its supporters were pushing Washington to start a war with Iraq to eliminate it as a military threat. President Bush made the U.S. position clear, however, in his speech on August 2, 1990, saying that the United States has “longstanding vital interests” in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, Iraq’s “naked aggression” violated the UN charter. The President expressed concern for other small nations in the area as well as American citizens living or working in the region. “I view a fundamental responsibility of my Presidency [as being] to protect American citizens.”1
Over the course of the Gulf crisis, the President and other top Administration officials made clear that U.S. interests — primarily oil supplies — were threatened by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Most Americans agreed with the President’s decision to go to war. For example, the Washington Post/ABC News Poll on January 16, 1991, found that 76 percent of Americans approved of the U.S. going to war with Iraq and 22 percent disapproved.2
It is true that Israel viewed Iraq as a serious threat to its security given its leadership of the rejectionist camp. Israeli concerns proved justified after the war began and Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at its civilian population centers.
Israel has never asked American troops to fight its battles. Although Israeli forces were prepared to participate in the Gulf War, they did not because the United States asked them not to. Even after the provocation of the Scud missile attacks, Israel assented to U.S. appeals not to respond.
“Israel’s low profile in the Gulf War proved it has no strategic value to the United States.”
Israel was never expected to play a major role in hostilities in the Gulf. American officials knew the Arabs would not allow Israel to help defend them; they also knew U.S. troops would have to intervene because the Gulf states could not protect themselves.
Israel’s posture reflected a deliberate political decision in response to American requests. Nevertheless, it did aid the United States’ successful campaign to roll back Iraq’s aggression. For example: -11-14T09:17"-10-28T10:00"The IDF was the sole military force in the region that could successfully challenge the Iraqi army. That fact, which Saddam Hussein understood, was a deterrent to further Iraqi aggression.
“Israel benefited from the 1991 Gulf War without paying any price.”
It is true that Israel benefittedbenefited from the destruction of Iraq’s military capability by the United States-led coalition, but the cost was enormous. Even before hostilities broke out, Israel had to revise its defense budget to maintain its forces at a heightened state of alert. The Iraqi missile attacks justified Israel’s prudence in keeping its air force flying round the clock. The war required the defense budget to be increased by more than $500 million. Another $100 million boost was needed for civil defense.
The damage caused by the 39 Iraqi Scud missiles that landed in Tel Aviv and Haifa was extensive. Approximately 3,300 apartments and other buildings were affected in the greater Tel Aviv area. Some 1,150 people who were evacuated had to be housed at a dozen hotels at a cost of $20,000 per night.
Beyond the direct costs of military preparedness and damage to property, the Israeli economy was also hurt by the inability of many Israelis to work under the emergency conditions. The economy functioned at no more than 75 percent of normal capacity during the war, resulting in a net loss to the country of $3.2 billion.3
The biggest cost was in human lives. A total of 74 people died as a consequence of Scud attacks. Two died in direct hits, four from suffocation in gas masks and the rest from heart attacks.4
A UN committee dealing with reparation claims against Iraq -11-14T09:19"-10-28T10:00"dating to the 1991 Gulf War approved more than $31 million to be paid to Israeli businesses and individuals. The 1999 decision stemmed from a 1992 Security Council decision calling on Iraq to compensate victims of the Gulf War.5 In 2001, the United Nations Compensation Commission awarded $74 million to Israel for the costs it incurred from Iraqi Scud missile attacks-11-14T09:19"-10-28T10:00" during the Gulf War. The Commission rejected most of the $1 billion that Israel had requested.6
“Iraq was never a threat to Israel.”
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a leader of the rejectionist Arab states and one of the most belligerent foes of Israel. On April 2, 1990, Saddam’s rhetoric became more threatening: “I swear to God we will let our fire eat half of Israel if it tries to wage anything against Iraq.” Saddam said his nation’s chemical weapons capability was matched only by that of the United States and the Soviet Union, and that he would annihilate anyone who threatened Iraq with an atomic bomb by the “double chemical.”7
Several days later, Saddam said that war with Israel would not end until all Israeli-held territory was restored to Arab hands. He added that Iraq could launch chemical weapons at Israel from several different sites.8 The Iraqi leader also made the alarming disclosure that his commanders had the freedom to launch attacks against Israel without consulting the high command if Israel attacked Iraq. The head of the Iraqi Air Force subsequently said he had orders to strike Israel if the Jewish State launched a raid against Iraq or any other Arab country.9
On June 18, 1990, Saddam told an Islamic Conference meeting in Baghdad: “We will strike at [the Israelis] with all the arms in our possession if they attack Iraq or the Arabs.” He declared “Palestine has been stolen,” and exhorted the Arab world to “recover the usurped rights in Palestine and free Jerusalem from Zionist captivity.”10
Saddam’s threat came in the wake of revelations that Britain and the United States foiled an attempt to smuggle American-made “krytron” nuclear triggers to Iraq.11 Britain’s MI6 intelligence service prepared a secret assessment three years earlier that Hussein had ordered an all-out effort to develop nuclear weapons.12 After Saddam used chemical weapons against his own Kurdish population in Halabja in 1988, few people doubted his willingness to use nuclear weapons against Jews in Israel if he had the opportunity.
In April 1990, British customs officers found tubes about to be loaded onto an Iraqi-chartered ship that were believed to be part of a giant cannon that would enable Baghdad to lob nuclear or chemical missiles into Israel or Iran.13 Iraq denied it was building a “supergun,” but, after the war, it was learned that Iraq had built such a weapon.14
Iraq emerged from its war with Iran with one of the largest and best-equipped military forces in the world. In fact, Iraq had one million battle-tested troops, more than 700 combat aircraft, 6,000 tanks, ballistic missiles and chemical weapons. Although the U.S. and its allies won a quick victory, the magnitude of Hussein’s arsenal only became clear after the war when UN investigators found evidence of a vast program to build chemical and nuclear weapons.15
Iraq also served as a base for several terrorist groups that menaced Israel, including the PLO and Abu Nidal’s Fatah Revolutionary Council.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein consistently threatened to strike Israel if his country was attacked. If the U.S. moves against Iraq, he said in December 1990, “then Tel Aviv will receive the next attack, whether or not Israel takes part.”16 At a press conference, following his January 9, 1991, meeting with Secretary of State James Baker, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was asked if the war starts, would Iraq attack Israel. He replied bluntly: “Yes. Absolutely, yes.”17
Ultimately, Saddam carried out his threat.
“Saddam Hussein was never interested in acquiring nuclear weapons.”
In 1981, Israel became convinced Iraq was approaching the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. To preempt the building of a weapon they believed would undoubtedly be directed against them, the Israelis launched theira surprise attack that destroyed inthe Osirak nuclear complex. At the time, Israel was widely criticized. On June 19, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the raid. Critics minimized the importance of Iraq’s nuclear program, claiming that because Baghdad had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and permitted its facilities to be inspected, Israeli fears were baseless.
It was not until after Iraq invaded Kuwait that U.S. officials began to acknowledge publicly that Baghdad was developing nuclear weapons and that it was far closer to reaching its goal than previously thought. Again, many critics argued the Administration was only seeking a justification for a war with Iraq.
Months later, after allied forces had announced the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear facilities, UN inspectors found Saddam’s program to develop weapons was far more extensive than even the Israelis believed. Analysts had thought Iraq was incapable of enriching uranium for bombs, but Saddam’s researchers used several methods (including one thought to be obsolete) that were believed tomay have made it possible for Iraq to build at least one bomb.
“The PLO was neutral in the 1991 Gulf War.”
The PLO, Libya and Iraq were the only members who opposed an Arab League resolution calling for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The intifada leadership congratulated Saddam Hussein and described the invasion of Kuwait as the first step toward the “liberation of Palestine.”20
In Jenin, on August 12, 1,000 Palestinians marched, shouting: “Saddam, you hero, attack Israel with chemical weapons.”21
According to some sources, the PLO played an active role in facilitating Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait. The logistical planning for the Iraqi invasion was at least partially based on intelligence supplied by PLO officials and supporters based in Kuwait.22
When the U.S. began massing troops in Saudi Arabia, Arafat called this a “new crusade” that “forebodes the gravest dangers and disasters for our Arab and Islamic nation.” He also made clear his position on the conflict: “We can only be in the trench hostile to Zionism and its imperialist allies who are today mobilizing their tanks, planes, and all their advanced and sophisticated war machine against our Arab nation.”23
Once the war began, the PLO Executive Committee reaffirmed its support for Iraq: “The Palestinian people stand firmly by Iraq’s side.” The following day, Arafat sent a message to Saddam hailing Iraq’s struggle against “American dictatorship” and describing Iraq as “the defender of the Arab nation, of Muslims and of free men everywhere.”24
Arafat’s enthusiasm for Hussein was undaunted by the outcome of the war. “I would like to take this opportunity to renew to your excellency the great pride that we take in the ties of fraternity and common destiny binding us,” he said in November 1991. “Let us work together until we achieve victory and regain liberated Jerusalem.”25
“American Jews goaded the United States to go to war against Iraq in 2003 to help Israel.”
Some opponents of the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 2003 claimed that American Jews somehow were responsible for persuading President George W. Bush to launch the military campaign on Israel’s behalf. The truth is thatIn fact, President Bush decided that Iraq posed a threat to the United States because it was believed to possessed weapons of mass destruction and was pursuing a nuclear capability that could have been used directly against Americans or could have been transferred to terrorists who would use them against U.S. targets. The removal of Saddam Hussein was also designed to eliminate one of the principal sponsors of terrorism.
The war in Iraq liberated the Iraqi people from one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Even in the Arab world, where many people objected to the U.S. action, no Arab leader rose to Saddam Hussein’s defense.
It is true that Israel will benefit from the elimination of a regime that launched 39 missiles against it in 1991, paid Palestinians to encourage them to attack Israelis, and led a coalition of Arab states committed to Israel’s destruction. It is also true, however, that many Arab states benefittedbenefited from the removal of Saddam Hussein, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This is why these nations allowed Allied forces to use their countries as bases for operations.
As for the role of American Jews, it is important to remember that Jews comprise less than three percent of the U.S. population and were hardly the most vocal advocates of the war. On the contrary, the Jewish community had divisions similar to those in the country as a whole, and most major Jewish organizations purposely avoided taking any position on the war. Meanwhile, public opinion polls showed that a significant majority of all Americans initially supported the President’s policy toward Iraq.
Some critics have suggested that prominent Jewish officials in the Bush Administration pushed for the war; however, only a handful of officials in the Administration were Jewish, and not one of the President’s top advisers at the time — the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Vice President, or National Security Adviser — was Jewish.
The suggestion that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States, or that they have undue influence on U.S. Middle East policy, is an example of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, some critics of the war on Iraq chose the age-old approach of blaming the Jews for a policy they disagreed with rather than addressing the substantive arguments in the debate.-12-01T11:17"
1Washington Post, (August 3, 1990).
Scud damage and stretcher photos from the National Photo Collection.
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