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Deterrence Eroded: The Gulf War 25 Years Later

Binyamin Rose

Although only 13 Israelis died during the Gulf War, a death toll of over 1,700 Jewish lives is rooted in the political chain of events that followed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

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Harav Boruch Povarsky of Ponevez Yeshiva gives a shuir on the weekly Torah portion.

Purim falls in late March this year, but it arrived early, and at a most opportune time on February 28, 1991, coinciding with the end of Gulf War, when a US-led military coalition reversed Iraq’s conquest of its oil-rich southern neighbor, Kuwait.

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Trying to break apart the US-led coalition that included several Arab countries frightened by Baghdad’s aggression, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein attempted to draw Israel into the war, firing 39 Scud missiles into Israel during the six-week campaign. Two Israelis died from direct hits, four from heart attacks, and another seven from the improper use of protective kits meant to save them from biological or chemical attacks. Considering just one Scud fired on a US military barracks in Saudi Arabia killed 28 US soldiers, Israelis of all stripes viewed their comparatively small casualty count as an open miracle. However, a case can be made that a far higher death toll — nearly 1,700 Jews as a result of the Oslo process — is deeply rooted in the political chain of events that followed the Gulf War. 

On March 6, 1991, six days after the Gulf War ended, a buoyant commander-in-chief, President George H. W. Bush, told Congress: “The time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” In those days, a peace process was unheard of, but Bush was confident he could make it happen. He had convinced Israel not to counterattack when Saddam’s Scuds hit. Now he turned to his Arab coalition partners and told them that Israel could make peace as easily as it could tame itself at war. After eight months of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State James Baker, the US roped all the players into attending the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991. As most Middle East peace conferences do, this one also ended in failure. In June 1992, Israelis voted Shamir’s Likud Party out of office. In came Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin and his second-in-command, Shimon Peres. Together, they revived the Madrid framework through back-channel negotiations with Jordan and the arch-terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), resulting in the Oslo I and Oslo II Agreements between 1993 and 1995. Oslo sowed political and religious dissension in the always-fractious Israeli society as never before. For the political left, it was a welcome change. 

“We’ve tried war, now we are trying peace.” For the political right, especially national-religious Jews who settled on land captured from Jordan and Egypt in the Six Day War, granting Arabs rights to the Biblical Land of Israel was sacrilegious, treasonous, or a monumental policy mistake from which there was no turning back. The PLO viewed Israeli concessions as a sign of weakness. With cover provided by its new political entity, the Palestinian Authority, it unleashed a wave of suicide bombings in Israel’s major cities, including the revolting attack on Seder night in 2002 at Netanya’s Park Hotel, which killed 30 mainly elderly holiday celebrants. The tide turned after that. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the IDF to recapture Judea and Samaria and to destroy the PA’s terror infrastructure. Later, a security wall was built between PA territories and Israel’s heartland to keep infiltrators out. 

In the decade that followed, PA terror had ebbed, until the recent outbreak of “lone-wolf” attacks. Israel’s major security threats now come from Hezbollah and Hamas rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, the threat of long-range missiles from Iran, as well as from an array of rebel groups who have set up camp near Israel’s border with Syria. It was Ariel Sharon, the hawkish general who turned into a peacenik politician, who coined the expression that restraint is strength, but with Israel facing threats on so many fronts, and its government acting with even greater caution, that posture has emboldened Israel’s many enemies. 

Knesset members from inside Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Naftali Bennett, and Bibi’s former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman have called for Israel to be more aggressive in destroying the tunnels Hamas fighters — and maybe Hezbollah as well — are burrowing into Israel, and for restoring Israel’s doctrine of deterrence by making the first moves, militarily. As long as the US stands by Israel as a strategic ally, which it has even under the cold stares of the Obama administration, the Netanyahu government can claim its approach has been justified. But with the White House up for grabs, and America in the grips of political upheaval, there may come a day for Israel when restraint is no longer a sign of strength, or very effective.

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