JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has informed the Bush administration that he plans to strike back if Iraq attacks Israel, said Israeli and Western officials.
Sharon's statements, made privately to senior American officials in recent weeks, represent a major shift in Israeli thinking since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when 39 Iraqi Scud missiles struck without any Israeli response.
The prime minister's position reflects a widespread belief among Israeli politicians and generals that Arab leaders perceived Israel's restraint in 1991 as weakness. Throughout his military and political career, Sharon has held to the view that any attack on Israel must be promptly and powerfully punished.
Sharon's position has significant implications for the Pentagon, which fears an Israeli entry would stir up Arab public opinion and make it harder to maintain cooperation with the Arab states where Washington hopes to base American forces.
The Pentagon is also planning military steps to reduce the Iraqi threat to Israel and obviate the need for an Israeli retaliatory strike. Israeli officials say they have been told by their American counterparts that the United States will mount an intensive campaign to destroy Iraqi missile launchers in western Iraq, an operation that would almost certainly require the use of American commandos in addition to airstrikes.
American officials have also assured the Israelis that they will receive adequate warning of when the American attack will begin, though American officials have not said precisely how much notice they will provide.
The United States has also installed a data link to rush early warning of Iraqi missile launches to Israeli commanders.