Don't Blame Israel

The official rationales for the U.S. invasion of Iraq are now widely acknowledged to have been fabricated: that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction threatening the national security of the United States and that the Iraqi government had operational ties to al Quaida. As the backup rationalization -- bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq -- loses credibility, increasing attention is being given as to why the U.S. government, with broad bipartisan support, made such a fateful decision.

There are a number of plausible explanations, ranging from control of the country's oil resources to strategic interests to ideological motivations. One explanation that should not be taken seriously, however, is the assertion that the right-wing government of Israel and its American supporters played a major role in leading the United States to invade Iraq.

The government of Israel and its supporters here in the United States deserve blame for many tragic policies in recent years that have led to needless human suffering, increased extremism in the Islamic world, decreased security and rampant violations of the U.N. Charter, international humanitarian law and other international legal principles. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, is not one of them.

Claims of a Major Israeli Role

There are four major arguments made by those who allege a key role by Israel and its American supporters in leading the United States to war in Iraq:

1. Despite propaganda by the Bush administration and its bipartisan supporters on Capitol Hill, Iraq was not a military threat to the United States. As a result, the invasion had to have been done to protect Israel from an Iraqi attack.

To begin with, Iraq, during the final years of Saddam Hussein's rule, was no more of a threat to Israel than it was to the United States. Virtually all Iraqi missiles capable of reaching Israel had been accounted for and destroyed by UNSCOM. The International Atomic Energy Agency had determined that Iraq no longer had a nuclear program, and virtually all the country's chemical weapons had similarly been accounted for and destroyed, or otherwise rendered inoperable. All this was presumably known to the Israelis, who actively monitored United Nations disarmament efforts in Iraq and had the best military intelligence capabilities in the region.

Though observers were less confident regarding the absence of biological weapons, the Israelis recognized that there was no realistic threat from that source either. Respected Israeli military analyst Meir Stieglitz, writing in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, stated categorically that "there is no such thing as a long-range Iraqi missile with an effective biological warhead. No one has found an Iraqi biological warhead. The chances of Iraq having succeeded in developing operative warheads without tests are zero." Similarly, it is highly doubtful that Iraq would have been able to attack Israel with biological weapons or by other means. For example, it is hard to imagine that an Iraqi aircraft carrying biological weapons, presumably some kind of subsonic drone, could somehow make the 600-mile trip to Israel without being detected and shot down. Israel -- as well as Iraq's immediate neighbors -- have long had sophisticated anti-aircraft capability.

More fundamentally, if the United States was really concerned with Israel's safety from Iraqi attack, why did the U.S. government provide Iraq with key elements of its WMD programs during the 1980s, including the seed stock for its anthrax and many of the components for its chemical weaponry, when Iraq clearly did have the capability of striking Israel? How could the pro-Israel lobby -- which was no more influential in 2002 than it was 15 years earlier -- have the power to push the United States to invade Iraq while Saddam was no longer a threat to Israel, when the lobby was unable to stop U.S. technology transfers to Iraq at a time that it really could have potentially harmed Israel?

2. Though Iraq had no connection with al-Qaeda, it was supporting other terrorist groups that were attacking Israel. A U.S. invasion was seen as a means to stopping the terrorist threat targeted at the Jewish state.

Saddam Hussein did support the Abu Nidal group, a radical secular Palestinian movement, during the mid-1980s, though it tended to target moderate leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization as much as it did Israelis. Ironically, the Reagan administration dropped Iraq from its list of states sponsoring terrorism at that time in order to be able to transfer arms and technology to Saddam Hussein's regime that would have otherwise been illegal. Iraq was put back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism immediately following its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, despite evidence that Iraq's support for international terrorism had actually declined. Abu Nidal himself became chronically ill not long afterward, and his group had been largely moribund for more than a decade when Saddam Hussein had him killed in his Baghdad apartment in 2002.

Iraq did support a tiny pro-Iraqi Palestinian group known as the Arab Liberation Front, which was known to pass on much of these funds to families of Palestinians who died in the struggle against Israel. These recipients included families of Palestine Authority police and families of nonviolent protesters, though some recipients were families of suicide bombers. Such Iraqi support was significantly less than the support many of these same families had received from Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-backed Arab monarchies, which -- unlike Iraq -- also provided direct funding for Hamas and other radical Palestinian Islamists.

In any case, given that Israeli occupation forces routinely destroyed the homes of families of suicide bombers and the Iraqi money fell way short of making up for their losses, it was hardly an incentive for someone to commit an act of terrorism, which tends to be driven by the anger, hopelessness, and desperation of living under an oppressive military occupation, not by financial incentives.

3. Individuals and organizations sympathetic to Israel strongly supported the invasion. Sizable numbers of otherwise dovish Jewish members of Congress voted in support of the war resolution and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), long considered one of the most powerful lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, pushed Congress to authorize an invasion on behalf of Israel.

While AIPAC undeniably has influenced congressional votes regarding Israeli-Palestinian concerns and related issues, it did not play a major role in lobbying members of Congress to vote in favor of the resolution authorizing a U.S. invasion of Iraq, in large part because they knew there was already such overwhelming bipartisan support for taking over that oil-rich country that they did not need to.

More fundamentally, there are far more powerful interests that have a stake in what happens in the Persian Gulf region than does AIPAC, such as the oil companies, the arms industry and other special interests whose lobbying influence and campaign contributions far surpass that of the much-vaunted Zionist lobby and its allied donors to congressional races.

It is noteworthy that in the authorization of the use of force for the 1991 Gulf War, the majority of Jewish members of Congress voted against the war resolution, which is more than can be said for its non-Jewish members. In the more lopsided vote authorizing the use of force in October 2002, a majority of Jewish members of Congress did vote in the affirmative, though proportionately less so than did non-Jewish members.

Today, the American Jewish community, like most Americans, is turning against the war. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, along with its chairman of the board, Robert Heller, recently sent a letter to President Bush stating, "We call not only for a clear exit strategy but also for specific goals for troop withdrawal to commence after the completion of parliamentary elections."

4. Pro-Israel Jewish neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle and others were among the key architects of the policy of "preventative war" and strongest advocates for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

While it is true that a disproportionate number of Jews could be found among the policy makers in Washington who pushed for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is also true that a disproportionate number of Jews could be found among liberal Democrats in Congress and leftist intellectuals in universities who opposed the invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, while a number of prominent neoconservative intellectuals are of Jewish background and some of them even advised Benyamin Netanyahu's right-wing government during the 1990s, they have tended not to be religious nor have they strongly identified as Zionists in an ideological sense.

It should also be noted that these same neoconservatives, while in the Reagan administration during the 1980s, were advocates of a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua and Cuba as well as a nuclear first strike -- in a so-called "limited nuclear war" -- against the Soviet Union. In short, they are hawks across the board, not just in regard to the Middle East. Support for Israel has always been seen as part of a broader strategic design to advance perceived U.S. interests in the region.

Furthermore, the most prominent and influential proponents of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney -- are neither Jewish nor prone to put the perceived interests of Israel ahead of that of the United States. Indeed, strong U.S. strategic interests in the Persian Gulf region, home of most of the world's known oil reserves, have existed for many decades and even pre-date the establishment of modern Israel.

Has the War Really Helped Israel?

To argue that support for Israel and/or pressure by supporters of Israel was a crucial variable in prompting the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq assumes that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has been good for Israel.

While Israel had little to worry about regarding Iraq during Saddam Hussein's final years in power, they certainly do now: Key leaders of Iraq's current government and likely future government are part of fundamentalist Shiite political movements heavily influenced by Iran. These movements are strongly anti-Zionist in orientation and some have maintained close ties to other radical Arab Shiite groups, such as the Lebanese Hizbullah, whose militia has battled Israel for more than 20 years.

The most powerful of the dominant parties of the U.S.-backed governing coalition has been the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose 15,000-strong paramilitary unit, known as the Badr Brigade, was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which also helped train the Hizbullah.

Meanwhile, the anti-government and anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq are dominated by Sunni Salafists and radical Arab nationalists, both of whom tend to be anti-Israel extremists. Thanks to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, these insurgents are becoming stronger and increasingly sophisticated fighters gaining valuable new experiences in urban guerrilla warfare as well as terrorist tactics. These Iraqi insurgents have developed close ties with radical Jordanian and Palestinian groups with the means and motivation to harm Israeli civilians and Israel will undoubtedly feel their impact.

As a result, rather than goading the United States into taking military action against Syria, the Israeli government has been cautioning the United States to back off from its pressure against the Assad regime, fearing that if the Baathist leader was overthrown, more radical elements could come to power or that the country could be thrown into a destabilizing civil war. Similarly, public opinion polls show that a sizable majority of Israelis oppose pre-emptive military action against Iran for fear that an attack on that large Islamic country could have serious negative consequences to Israeli security interests.

As part of its desperate strategy to defend its disastrous policies in Iraq, the Bush administration and its supporters are now using the defense of Israel as an excuse. While such claims have no more validity than claims that Saddam Hussein had operational ties to al Qaida or still possessed WMDs, it carries the additional danger that Israel and its American Jewish supporters will end up getting blamed for the whole Iraqi debacle.

The American Jewish newspaper The Forward noted how a number of pro-Israel American activists and prominent Israelis had criticized recent comments by President George W. Bush and other prominent Republicans who have recently played the Israel card to justify the increasingly unpopular war. For example, Dani Rothschild, a retired Israeli major general who had served as the Israeli army's top administrator in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, noted how "it could put Israel in a very awkward situation with the American public, if Israel would be the excuse for losing more American soldiers every day."

Using Israel as an excuse for unpopular U.S. policies in the Middle East is nothing new. Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to meet with a half-dozen Arab foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers and have asked each of them why their government was still so friendly with the United States, given U.S. policy toward the Palestinians, the Iraqis and other Arabs. Every one has answered to the effect that U.S. officials had explained to them that the anti-Arab bias in U.S. foreign policy was not the fault of the U.S. government itself, but was the result of wealthy Jews essentially running U.S. foreign policy.

In short, American officials are utilizing classic anti-Semitic scapegoating by blaming an alleged cabal of rich Jews behind the scenes for being responsible for a widely perceived injustice as a means of deflecting attention away from those who actually are responsible.

This does not mean that everyone who overstates the role of Israel in propelling the United States to war with Iraq is guilty of anti-Semitism. They just happen to be wrong. Because this particular argument parallels dangerous anti-Semitic stereotypes that exaggerate Jewish power and influence, however, it is a particularly grievous misinterpretation, not just because it reinforces longstanding oppressive attitudes against a minority group, but because it diverts attention away from those who really are responsible for the continuing tragedy in Iraq.

Indeed, that has largely been the functional purpose of anti-Semitism throughout Western history: to misdirect popular anger at economic injustice, disastrous military campaigns or other failures by political and economic elites onto a convenient and expendable target. It is critical, therefore -- particularly for those who identify with the peace movement -- to resist buying into the myth that it was Israel and its supporters who were responsible for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

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