We watched as the Iraqi Scud missile passed high over our heads in Jerusalem during the Gulf War. I won the squad’s bet after predicting the missile was heading to the vicinity of Ben Gurion airport. We didn’t huddle in bomb shelters; we were a squad of “first responders,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reserve medics and doctors who, upon hearing sirens warning of a Scud attack, ran to ambulances while donning our gas masks and charcoal suits. Tourniquets and atropine injectors were to be our first tools upon arriving at a scene. Thankfully, in the end, we were never needed in the Jerusalem area. But a month of sleepless nights and adrenaline jolts left us—and all Israelis—exhausted.
As the weeks of the war passed, we couldn’t believe the Scuds were still falling. And we couldn’t believe the IDF had not yet engaged in the war against Saddam Hussein and his Scuds. The frustration levels were close to explosion in the Israeli defense establishment and public.
Eventually, the Israeli public learned that the U.S. Administration had warned the Israeli government against getting involved in the Gulf War. It feared Israeli participation would unravel the coalition of nations fighting Iraq. To secure Israel’s compliance, the United States offered Patriot anti-Scud missiles to Israel and promised to destroy the Scud missile launchers in western Iraq firing at Israel. It turned out the much-welcomed American-manned Patriot missiles were ineffective in intercepting the Scuds. No Scud launchers were found, particularly after U.S. Army Commander Norman Schwarzkopf scoffed at the missiles’ abilities and cut back operations in the launch area. Still, U.S. forces “dedicated 2,493 missions to what came to be called the ‘Great Scud Hunt,'” TIME magazine reported. “But [they] did not score one confirmable kill against a mobile missile or its launcher in Iraq.”
Gulf War Set Historic Pattern
From Israel’s perspective, this account of Israeli-American relations during the Gulf War set a historic pattern that would repeat itself over the next quarter century. With all the heartfelt declarations by Israeli and American leaders of thanks for U.S.-Israel cooperation, aid, and friendship notwithstanding, a sense of disappointment, caution, and even distrust snuck into the Israeli psyche.
In response to Arab procurement of long-range rockets, Israel launched in the late 1980s an ambitious anti-ballistic missile program, the Arrow, to develop a Scud-killer. The U.S. government contributed generously to the missile’s development, procurement, and deployment. Historically, the United States was relatively open-handed when it came to defensive weapons to Israel. Indeed, the first U.S. system provided to Israel was the defensive Hawk anti-aircraft missile during John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
The pattern returned in recent years with Israel’s development of the Iron Dome air defense system after thousands of Hizbullah and Hamas rockets were fired at Israeli civilians between 2000 and 2008. The United Sates government, bolstered by overwhelming congressional support, provided financial assistance for the production and procurement of the defensive system.
Israel’s Iron Dome defensive missiles were swatting hundreds of Hamas Grad and M-75 rockets out of the sky during the summer of 2014, and when Israel sought assistance to procure more Iron Dome missiles, “the request was deemed noncontroversial because the Iron Dome was defensive and couldn’t be used in Gaza ground fighting,” wrote The Wall Street Journal, quoting U.S. officials. At the same time, the newspaper continued, “White House and State Department
officials … were leading U.S. efforts to rein in Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip.” Throughout the 2014 Gaza war, U.S. spokespersons, figuratively shielded by the defensive Iron Dome, were relatively unrestrained in their criticism of Israeli attacks. “We have been heart-broken by the high civilian death toll in Gaza,” declared Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman on July 16, 2014.
Therefore, it is not surprising that an urgent Israeli request for Hellfire air-to-surface precision missiles was frozen by the Administration.
The exceptionally accurate Hellfire missile is precisely the weapon of choice to attack and neutralize a Hamas rocket team embedded in the middle of an urban area. Otherwise, Israel’s army would be forced to rely on less accurate artillery or tank fire. Nevertheless, the Hellfires were withheld.
Doubts Raised by Intelligence Failures
In 2007, incredulity was Israel’s reaction when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated that Iran had ended all “nuclear weapon design and weaponization work” in 2003. “We judge with high confidence that in Fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” the NIE stated. Following the NIE release, the British intelligence chiefs’ opinion emerged in the Daily Telegraph headline: “Britain: Iran ‘Hoodwinked’ CIA Over Nuclear Plans.”
Also in 2007, Israel had gathered intelligence that Syria and North Korea were building a plutonium reactor financed by Iran in the Deir ez-Zor area in northern Syria. (Now in an ISIS-controlled area.) Israel brought the intelligence to the attention of the United States, but American intelligence services doubted the Israeli findings. President George W. Bush wrote in his memoir Decision Points, that Israel requested that the United States bomb the Syrian site, but Bush refused, explaining that the intelligence on a nuclear weapons program was not definitive. Several months after the alleged Israeli raid on the nuclear facility, The New York Times reported, “Two senior intelligence officials acknowledged that the evidence had left them with no more than ‘low confidence’ that Syria was preparing to build a nuclear weapon.”
American intelligence and defense officials had little problems of confidence in 2013 when on at least three occasions they leaked details and pointed fingers at Israel as responsible for air raids against Syrian-Hezbollah advanced arms transfers. Typically, Israel does not acknowledge carrying out such attacks, but U.S. Administration officials still tagged Israel. The American motives are still not well understood in Israel. As explained by an Israeli defense analyst at the time, “By keeping silent on whether it carried out such attacks, Israel was maintaining plausible deniability, so that Syria’s President Bashar Asad did not feel pressured to respond to the attacks.” But, the analyst complained, the U.S. leaks pushed “Asad closer to the point where he can’t swallow these attacks, and will respond.”
No country in the Middle East cheers for the United States as much as Israel. Israelis, therefore, are troubled when American policy falters. An old Israeli tale relates how an Israeli prime minister was very worried. “Why are you so concerned?” his aide asked. “Because of the terrible drought,” the PM responded. “But we had a good rainy season; there’s no drought here,” the aide said. “Not here,” said the PM. “The drought’s in the American Midwest.” So deep is the Israeli identification with the United States.
Israel and the United States have had policy differences in the last quarter century, but prolonged rancorous policy differences with the United States are an unnatural state.
The American retreat from the Middle East—caused by the post-Iraq war syndrome, some claim—concerns Israel. In many ways, the United States is perceived as adrift in the Middle East today.
The coalition of nations combating ISIS today in Iraq and Syria is approximately the same size as the coalition pulled together to fight Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Today, the war is fought more from the skies than it was in 1991 with “Stormin’ Norman’s” armored forces. But the bigger difference is that today’s combatants, led by the United States, do not project the same power, and that is a danger to all allied regional countries facing jihadists, Iran, or its proxies.
Tragically, there is no shortage of U.S. intelligence failures and colossal policy fiascos in the Middle East over the last decade: the misreading of the ISIS movement; the failure to back Iranian protesters in 2009; the 2012 attack on the U.S. in Benghazi, Libya; backchannel dalliances with Iranians and Bashar Asad; the six month delay (until June 2013) in admitting Syria dropped poison gas on innocent civilians and the erasing of the President’s “red-line” warning; the failure to equip and train Syrian rebel factions; the missteps on demanding an Israeli settlement freeze; the abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and embrace of Muslim Brotherhood leaders; and the inexcusable disregard for the suffering people of Syria.
That litany may pale against the cataclysmic consequence of American co-sponsorship of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Lenny Ben-David is Director of Publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington, 1997-2000.