IT was one press conference I’ll never forget. After another night of Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel, a reporter next to me in the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel asked the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) spokesman what Israel’s response might be if one of Saddam Hussein’s missiles contained, say, sarin or some other chemical or biological agent?

“We would turn Baghdad into a sheet of glass,” came the immediate reply. It was a chilling moment. No conferring, no hesitation – just an implied nuclear strike.

While the spokesman was doubtless shooting from the hip, it was an indication of the mood that had gripped Israel since those Iraqi missile strikes had begun back in January 1991.

This was the time of what was then dubbed the Gulf War. A conflict between Iraq and a 42-country multinational coalition that had come together after Iraq’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait in August 1990, before Saddam’s troops went on to fully occupy the country.

Iraq’s government had made no secret that it would attack Israel if invaded. Saddam’s regime hoped that not only would it provoke a military response from Israel, but in doing so many Arab states that formed part of the coalition would in turn withdraw from it, refusing to fight alongside Israel.

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As the then US president, George HW Bush, issued an appeal to Israel to hold back from any retaliation, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir called an emergency meeting of his defence committee to decide on his country’s response.

After many hours foreign minister David Levy emerged to tell journalists that no decision had yet been taken.

“Israel reserves the right to retaliate in the manner and with the scale and method of its own choosing,” he said, and few doubted that US pressure had been brought to bear on the Israelis.

Unusually, Shamir had decided not to retaliate after Washington pulled out all the stops to encourage its ally to hold back. A deal between the two nations was struck. Not only were US Patriot surface-to-air missile defence systems delivered to Israel at breakneck speed, but cash incentives, and a green light from Washington for Israel to continue with its illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank, were also given the nod of approval.

Now fast forward to today and ask yourself whether all this sounds familiar. Ask yourself too whether, this time around, current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will prove as receptive to American efforts or incentives to Israel not to strike back against Tehran as Shamir was back in 1991.

The National: Iranian army members march during Army Day parade at a military base in northern Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. In the parade, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned that the "tiniest invasion" by Israel would bring a "massive

Just to put Netanyahu and his government’s decision in responding to Iran into some kind of perspective compared with the situation in 1991, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Islamic Republic launched more ballistic missiles at Israel in one hour in its recent attacks than Iraq did during weeks of war back then.

That did not stop the world from holding its breath back in 1991, with many international leaders recognising that, should Israel have launched an all-out attack on Baghdad, then the Middle East would have exploded into widespread war, perhaps on a scale never seen before and from which the shockwaves would reverberate till this day. As it is, a second war over Iraq from 2003-2011 did just that.

Very different in some respects as the crises then and now are, the parallels are still striking. Not least among them was the positioning and role of those Arab countries back in 1991 that formed part of the coalition and those today that helped bring down those Iranian drones and missiles heading towards their targets in Israel.

As archival documents have subsequently shown, back in 1991 King Hussein of Jordan and Shamir had reached a tacit strategic understanding on Jordan’s neutrality during the war.

Part of this was Hussein’s categoric refusal to Shamir to allow Israeli warplanes to fly through Jordanian airspace to retaliate against an Iraqi attack and guarantees that Jordanian forces were deployed only for defensive purposes.

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But contrast that with last week’s position adopted by Amman, whereby not only did Jordan help bring down Iranian drones, but opened its airspace to Israeli warplanes.

Why does this matter? Well, the short answer is that, despite Amman’s strong criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza, it was still there for Israel at this moment of threat from Iran. This places Jordan in a tricky position of being literally stuck in the middle of a widening Israel-Iran conflict.

Most significantly it has potentially profound internal political repercussions as it does for those other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose recent cooperation against Iran has the capacity to be damaging on the domestic front.

It’s worth remembering for example that in Jordan’s case about half the population is of Palestinian origin from the days when Palestinians were ousted from their land as the state of Israel asserted itself.

In short, while Jordan’s King Abdullah II today might strongly claim that its aim was to safeguard its own sovereignty rather than defend Israel, some at home might not see it that way and the same can be said of Saudi and the UAE.

The National: Israel has accused Iran of striking the Golan Heights (Jim Hollander/AP)

Should Israel decide to strike back hard against Iran in the coming days or weeks, this will put even more pressure on these Arab nations, testing the solidity of a coalition that sits awkwardly in working with the US and others like Britain and France in supporting Israel.

As Oraib Al Rantawi, director of the Al Quds Centre for Political Studies, a think tank based in Jordan, summed it up speaking to US television station NBC News: “There is no easy position to take for all of them, especially Jordan, which for geopolitical reasons has found itself trapped between two troublemakers – Iran and Israel.”

In other words, the scale and nature of Israel’s response should it come – as few doubt it will – has the capacity to create instability far and wide across the region, just as Israel’s threat to strike Baghdad did back in 1991.

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It was a volatile time then and it’s arguably an even more volatile time, now given Iran’s massive weapons capacity compared to that of Iraq back in those days.

If there is a lesson from 1991 that could be learned from, it’s that Israel holding back from all-out retaliation then prevented an even bigger crisis than the one that subsequently unfolded.

Whether Netanyahu will look back on Shamir’s decision of 1991 in a way that influences his government’s own right now remains to be seen. But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. Israel’s political mood and landscape after all is very different – in some ways – than it was back in 1991.