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What Bibi didn’t say at AIPAC: Scuds falling in 1991

Forget Auschwitz. The first Gulf War and its barrages of Scuds on Tel Aviv is a compelling example of what happens when the US tells Israel to stand aside

Not everyone was impressed last week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed to his AIPAC audience a 1944 letter urging the United States to bomb the railways to Auschwitz and a letter with the American War Department’s refusal. “Such an operation would be of such doubtful efficacy,” was the American response. “Such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.”

In Israel, opposition leader Tzipi Livni criticized Netanyahu, saying, “I don’t like his repeated comparisons with the Holocaust. Israel is not Auschwitz.” The editor of Ha’aretz, Aluf Ben, grumbled:

Netanyahu compared Iran to Nazi Germany, its nuclear facilities to death camps, and his current trip to the White House to a desperate plea to former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt by the Jewish-American community to bomb Auschwitz.

American columnist Maureen Dowd argued:

I’d feel better if our partner was not the trigger-happy Netanyahu, who makes hysterical arguments even in the absence of a dire threat. At AIPAC, he compared those who want to be less hasty than he does to America’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz in 1944.

I can personally attest that Prime Minister Netanyahu is certainly not “trigger-happy” and that he truly fears attacks on Israel of Holocaust proportions. Fifteen years ago, while serving in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, I joined Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister, in a private meeting and lunch with then-vice president Al Gore. Already then he was warning the US government of the Iranian threat and of Russian scientists helping to build Iranian missiles.

Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC last week (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC last week (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

But, in all candor, there’s a more immediate and troubling analogy that Netanyahu could have made: The American insistence in 1991 that Israel not preemptively destroy Iraqi Scuds aimed at Israel, and that Israel not retaliate when those missiles, thought to be armed with chemical warheads, started falling on Israeli cities.

Israel really had no dog in the 1991 fight; it was an American-led war to recapture Kuwait from Iraq. Iraq was facing a coalition that included many Arab countries, and the Bush administration pushed Israel behind the drapes. The Iraqis would never attack Israel, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reportedly assured Jerusalem.

The lesson of the Gulf War

According to Moshe Arens, Israel’s defense minister at the time, his American counterparts “expected that within 48 hours the US Air Force would eliminate the missile launch capability of the Iraqis. If it turned out that they were not going to be able to do it within 48 hours, Israel would be free to take whatever action it considered appropriate.”

Not a single Scud missile or launcher was knocked out by American planes, not just in the first 48 hours, but during the whole war. Yet President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker insisted that Israel continue its restraint and not “spoil” their coalition. They assured Israel that the most modern Patriot anti-aircraft missiles would be dispatched to Israel and would be able to shoot down the Scuds. Post-war analysis showed that not a single Scud was intercepted by the Patriots.

Meanwhile, the commander of the American coalition, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, objected to the number of American planes hunting Scuds in western Iraq, wanting to redirect US aircraft to the Kuwait front.

At the height of the war Arens was sent to Washington to meet with President Bush.  In a 21-year-old news account that could actually describe Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meetings in Washington last week, The New York Times wrote:

An administration official said Arens seemed to be “laying the groundwork if the Israelis decide to retaliate…”


The administration official said that in the talks with Bush, Arens “didn’t say absolutely that the Israelis were going to retaliate. But he didn’t say they were not, either… He made a very emotional presentation, though.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu has stressed that the difference between Germany’s genocide against the Jews in World War II and the Iranian threats against Israel today is the existence of Israel and its army, which protects the Jewish people of Israel.

An emotional presentation. Moshe Arens (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
'An emotional presentation.' Moshe Arens (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

True enough, but the 1991 trauma of the United States minimizing Saddam Hussein’s threat against Israel and denying Israel the right to defend itself gnaws at the psyche of Israelis alive today. Israel was pressured and acceded to the demand that we do not have a right to defend ourselves. We and our children ourselves – not as descendants of Holocaust survivors – experienced the terror of the sirens, atropine injectors and gas masks of the destructive Scud barrages while the United States in effect told us “sha shtil yidim” (Jews, sit still).

Maybe Netanyahu was being polite to his American hosts who remember 1991 differently or choose to ignore it. But maybe that 1991 experience makes it a little easier to understand Israelis’ discomfort when our best friend and ally says “trust us.”

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he is director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a public affairs consultant and publishes israeldailypicture.com. He is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs."