Vol. 3, No. 25 June 3, 2004
An insidious but steady drumbeat can be discerned over the last several weeks charging that the primary interest of the Bush administration in going to war against Saddam Hussein was to defend Israeli security interests. This newest wave is often more subtle but also far more mainstream than what was voiced in this regard just last year.
Yet from Israel’s perspective, by 2003 the Iraqi Army had been severely degraded in both military manpower and equipment. Continuing UN sanctions had made Iraqi re-armament difficult and Iraq was clearly not Israel’s primary concern. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens concluded in August 2002 that in the immediate future, “the [missile] threat that Israel most likely will have to contend with” is that of Syria. He described the Iraqi capability as “relatively limited.” During the same month, Israel’s current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, declared in Jerusalem that the threat posed by Iraq “doesn’t make me lose sleep.”
If prior to the Iraq War the Israeli security establishment was somewhat ambivalent about the extent of the Iraqi threat, there was one state that threatened Israel about which Israeli statements were unmistakably clear: Iran. Israel used language with respect to Iran that it did not apply to Iraq. Thus, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would call Iran “the main existential threat to Israel.”
In other words, the American war against Iraq may have had an unintended side-effect of removing a secondary or tertiary threat to Israel, but not a primary threat.
Besides the declared objectives of the Iraq War, there is something persuasive about Richard Clarke’s thesis that in the case of Iraq, the dominant consideration was concern over the long-term stability of the House of Saud and the need for the U.S. to replace a shaky Saudi Arabia with an alternative friendly source of oil for the industrial West. Considering the widespread presence of al-Qaeda cells across virtually all parts of Saudi Arabia that now has become evident after repeated terrorist attacks in that country, this American consideration has been proven to be prescient. But this has absolutely nothing to do with Israel.
An insidious but steady drumbeat can be discerned over the last several weeks that seeks to link Israel with the U.S. decision to launch the Iraq War. Back in 2003, it was Yasser Arafat who charged that the Israeli government was “the first inciter for the war against Iraq.”1 About the same time, Patrick Buchanan charged in his American Conservative magazine that “a cabal of polemicists and public officials seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests.” He went on to blame them for “colluding with Israel to ignite those wars.”
On the liberal side, Chris Matthews, who hosts MSNBC’s Hardball, echoed Buchanan when he spoke about “conservative people out there, some of them Jewish…who believe that if we don’t fight Iraq, Israel will be in danger.” Likewise, former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart warned of “ideologues” who were not able to distinguish between their loyalty “to their original homelands” and loyalty “to America and its national interests.”2
The newest wave in 2004 is often more subtle but also far more mainstream. Thus, in May 2004, CBS’s “60 Minutes” interviewed General Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, who blasted the civilian leadership in the Pentagon for faulty strategy in Iraq. Steve Kroft of CBS then added fuel to the fire of Zinni’s attack by asserting that the neo-conservatives among the civilian leaders in the Pentagon had an agenda to “strengthen the position of Israel.”3
Of course, what has given these comments saliency in the media is the difficulty the U.S. Army has encountered in dealing with the insurgency in Iraq after the completion of major combat operations. Had this aspect of the Iraq War gone more smoothly, as was perhaps originally anticipated, much of this scapegoating would not have even been voiced.
But it continued nonetheless. Newsweek reminded its readers in a May 31 cover-story on Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader whose offices were recently raided by Iraqi and U.S. security personnel, of how he had previously become a favorite of the Pentagon elite: Chalabi spoke in 1997 at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), Newsweek emphasized, adding that in private conversations Chalabi assured his neo-conservative friends that a post-Saddam Iraq “would be an Arab country friendly to Israel.”4 A few weeks earlier, Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) wrote in a Charleston newspaper that behind the U.S. decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein was “President Bush’s policy to secure Israel.” Rather than retract his language, Hollings reiterated his claims later on the floor of the U.S. Senate.5
The main charge by the current detractors of Israel is that the primary interest of the Bush administration in going to war against Saddam Hussein was to defend Israeli security interests. Bush critic Richard Clarke, who previously served in the administration, also mentions the Israel factor as one of five rationales of the Bush administration for the Iraq War, but at least he sets it aside as a main consideration, preferring instead to focus on the concern with finding a long-term alternative to Saudi Arabian oil.6 Another variation on the Israel theme is the assertion made by Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, that General Zinni heard from administration officials that the Iraq War would advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because “the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad.” According to this thesis, the Iraq War would chiefly help Israel’s drive to obtain peace on reasonable terms – still a benefit to Israel.
For critics of President Bush in the heat of an election year, who reject the notion that the Iraq War was fought over weapons of mass destruction, the war on terrorism, or over human rights and a promise of a democratic Iraq, the Israel factor is a useful instrument for bashing the administration by ascribing the war to alien considerations having nothing to do with U.S. interests.
The Israeli Interest in the Iraq War
Iraq is one of several Arab countries that have in the past constituted Israel’s “Eastern Front.” Historically, they include Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. But whereas Syria devoted almost its entire ground order-of-battle to wars with Israel, Iraq sent only expeditionary forces that never exceeded one-third of its total army in 1948, 1967, and 1973. In the past, the Iraqi military reserved most of its units for internal threats (such as against the Kurdish militia) or for threats from Iran. Moreover, Iraq is not contiguous with Israel, as is Syria, and hence required the permission of third parties to project its military forces across 300 miles to reach Israel on the ground.
In short, the Iraqi threat against Israel could be substantial if Iraq maintained a 40-division army as it did prior to its invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War, when in theory it could have threatened Israel with a 12-division force. However, by 2003, the Iraqi Army had been severely degraded in both military manpower and equipment. Continuing UN sanctions made Iraqi re-armament difficult. Thus, Iraq was clearly not Israel’s primary concern.
What about missiles and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Looking at publicized Israeli preparations and statements before and after the Iraq War, it is clear that Israeli officials were concerned with this aspect of Iraqi military power, but not overwhelmingly so. The Head of Military Intelligence of the Israel Defense Forces, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot that Iraq maintained a “residual capability” after 1998 that included “tens of missiles and several chemical and biological warheads.”7 Analyzing the prewar training patterns of the Iraqi Air Force, there were concerns in Israel that Baghdad sought to prepare long-range attack options, but these were not necessarily Israel-specific.8
By contrast, in early 2003, among Israel’s neighbors, Syria possessed by far the largest stockpile of ballistic missiles – at least 500 missiles or about ten times the size of the Iraqi arsenal.9 The Syrians could mount on them the same biological or chemical warheads as the Iraqis, with one important difference: Iraq had to reduce the size of its warheads in order to extend the range of its missiles; thus, the quantities of non-conventional material that could be delivered by the Syrian missile forces was considerably greater.
Speaking in August 2002, Israel’s former defense minister, Moshe Arens, concluded that in the immediate future, “the [missile] threat that Israel most likely will have to contend with” is that of Syria.10 He described the Iraqi capability as “relatively limited.” During the same month, Israel’s current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, declared in Jerusalem that the threat posed by Iraq “doesn’t make me lose sleep.”11 In an open address at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in October 2002, the former head of analysis for Israeli Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, explained to an Israeli audience that since the Iraqi missile units had not conducted military exercises and lacked spare parts, the Iraqi threat to Israel was minimal.
In other words, the American war against Iraq may have had an unintended side-effect of removing a secondary or tertiary threat to Israel, but not a primary threat. For other states in the region, like Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, whose territory was actually invaded or threatened by Iraqi forces in the last 20 years, Iraq posed a potential primary threat. Indeed, when one considers the fact that Saddam Hussein’s military killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in successive wars with Iran, the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, and Kuwaitis, while perhaps one Israeli was killed due to the Iraqi missile attack on Israel in 1991, the theory that the Bush administration fought Iraq on behalf of Israel looks especially ludicrous. And while Iraq supported Palestinian terrorism against Israel over the last number of years, it was only a minor financial sponsor compared to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Risks Israel Undertook Because of the Iraq War
If Israel played down the Iraqi threat prior to 2003, once the countdown to the U.S.-UK-led campaign got underway, the Israeli government had to undertake serious civil-defense preparations. The most notable development was a sudden nationwide effort to distribute gas masks and nerve gas antidote. It was assumed that Iraq could not retaliate against Washington or London, which were beyond the range of its missiles, but Baghdad might strike out against U.S. regional allies like Israel. As a result, Israel had to prepare itself to absorb this sort of Iraqi counterattack which, if not for the coalition’s war on Iraq, was unlikely to have been directed against Israel like a bolt out of the blue. In other words, while Israel clearly benefited from the removal of a secondary or tertiary threat to its security, from its perspective, Israel assumed tremendous risks in the process.
For regardless of what happened to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Israeli military intelligence had little doubt that a small amount of this weaponry was still retained by Saddam Hussein, enough to cause great harm to a small country. Moreover, Israel’s concerns with a potential biological weapons attack included contagious diseases, like smallpox. Indeed, Israeli health workers were vaccinated for smallpox as an additional prewar precaution.
How would Saddam Hussein deliver these weapons over Israel, given the small size of the Iraqi missile force? The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s investigation of Israel’s wartime intelligence on Iraq disclosed that the Israeli military discerned long-range Iraqi Air Force exercises before the war that also included the use of pilotless drone aircraft.
The use of suicide terrorists could not be dismissed either. While the extent of the al-Qaeda/Saddam link is a matter of dispute in the U.S., there is no question that the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) of Abul Abbas operated out of Baghdad and his operatives were trained by Iraqi intelligence. This relatively small organization, which was a component of the PLO, had dispatched operatives from Iraq to the West Bank before and could have been the vehicle for delivering such weapons, in coordination with larger Palestinian groups such as Fatah-Tanzim or Hamas. Indeed, these groups had experimented, on a limited scale and without much success, with suicide bombs that were tainted with biological weapons components. In short, it would have been foolhardy for Israel to dismiss out of hand the possibility of Iraqi retaliation in response to the coalition attack on Iraq.
The Real Long-Term Threat to Israel: Iran
If prior to the Iraq War the Israeli security establishment was somewhat ambivalent about the extent of the Iraqi threat, there was one state that threatened Israel about which Israeli statements were unmistakably clear: Iran. Israel used language with respect to Iran that it never used regarding Iraq. Thus, in 2004 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would call Iran “the main existential threat to Israel.”12 Arriving in Washington a few weeks after the September 11, 2001, attack, former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told reporters: “Iran stands in first place as a sponsor of terrorism.”13 Clearly, if Israel wanted to get into the business – which it did not – of prodding the U.S. to go to war on its behalf, it would have chosen Iran and not Iraq.
Why was the Iranian threat worse than the Iraqi threat? Despite the removal of UN monitors from Iraq in 1998, Iraq, nonetheless, had been under international inspection for more than a decade, limiting the progress of its clandestine programs in developing prohibited weapons under UN Security Council Resolution 687. Iran did not face the same international constraints, so both its nuclear and ballistic missile programs were far more advanced. For example, the bi-partisan, congressionally-mandated Rumsfeld Commission Report of 1998 predicted that Iran could put together an intercontinental-range missile within five years from taking the decision, while Iraq would need double that time.
While Iran was completing the development of its 1,300-kilometer-range Shihab-III missile, it had already placed thousands of Fajr artillery rockets in Lebanon that could strike central Israel. These forward-deployed rocket systems were under Iranian command and control. Iraq had no equivalent territory along Israel’s borders that it could exploit in order to threaten Israeli cities.
On the nuclear side as well, Iran was moving ahead of Iraq by the year 2000. Speaking in Jerusalem in July 2000, former UNSCOM executive-chairman Richard Butler disclosed that, while the Iraqi design for producing nuclear weapons was advanced, Baghdad did not possess the necessary enriched uranium or plutonium for producing an atomic weapon.14 Yet Iran possessed what Iraq lacked. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) already knew about Iran’s covert nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz by September 2002 when the issue was raised by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei with Iran’s vice-president.15 A confidential IAEA report in 2003 described how the clandestine Iranian nuclear enrichment program had been based on complex technologies developed over the past 18 years.16 Thus, Israel would have had good reasons to be more concerned about Iran than about Iraq prior to the Iraq War.
Nonsense About Neo-Conservatives
The alleged conduit for supposed Israeli influence on the Bush administration, according to the conspiracy theorists, has been the group of “neo-conservatives” that are repeatedly identified as serving in the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice-President. By definition, neo-conservatives are “new” conservatives who once were members of the Democratic Party and are now Republicans. They are particularly vulnerable to an ideological cross-fire in the internal U.S. political debate, since liberals regard them as defectors who abandoned their original camp, while certain ultra-conservative elements may not welcome them as full members of the club.
As Norman Podhoretz points out, one of the first neo-conservatives was President Ronald Reagan, who was a liberal Democrat until his fifties.17 Most of President George W. Bush’s advisors are actually life-long conservatives, but because there are also some neo-conservatives in the administration, the influence of this group appears to have been exaggerated. Furthermore, the fact that some notable neo-conservatives are American Jews has allowed some commentators, as Podhoretz has observed, to play on ancient anti-Semitic canards as they trash the Bush administration’s Iraq War strategy: Like the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, these conspiracies are based on a sinister Jewish plot to exercise global influence. In its current variant, that influence is exercised on behalf of Israel.
Moreover, the critics of the neo-conservatives charge that this plot is intended to serve the ideological agenda of the Israeli Likud Party. Thus, Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi branded Elliot Abrams, who serves on the National Security Council, as “an American Likudnik.” Maureen Dowd explained to the readers of the New York Times that the neo-conservatives seek to make sure that U.S. foreign policy “is good for Ariel Sharon,” Israel’s prime minister who heads the Likud Party.18
Like the charge that the Iraq War was promoted by Israel, the Likud connection has been shown to be groundless. For example, in November 2003, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz met with the authors of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan that envisions Israel withdrawing to the 1967 lines – a stand which is anathema to the Likud Party. Writing with David Frum, Richard Perle proposed that the U.S. use its influence to help broker the creation of a Palestinian mini-state “with its capital in part of Jerusalem.”19 The redivision of Jerusalem is overwhelmingly opposed by most Israelis and certainly by the members of the Likud Party. In contrast, the Pentagon’s Douglas Feith has criticized the concessions of former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the pages of Commentary.20 In short, there is no uniform neo-conservative position on Israel. Consequently, there is no set policy on Israel among neo-conservatives that has been coordinated with the leadership of the Likud Party. The Likud/neo-conservative cabal is a myth.
But what if a portion of the Republican Party leadership adopted positions on the Middle East that were similar to those of the Likud, the ruling party in Israel? Would anyone care if Republicans and British conservatives engaged in a dialogue over the future of the Atlantic Alliance? What if the dialogue was with Germany’s Christian-Democratic Party? For decades, European Socialist parties met at meetings of the Socialist Internationale (along with the Israeli Labor Party) in order to adopt joint positions on a host of issues. There was no outcry that this was some kind of sinister plot – nor should there have been. But if the Likud Party were to have a dialogue with American neo-conservatives, then this is somehow branded as illegitimate, or worse.
And only in this case has the Jewish background of some of the Americans come under scrutiny with open comments about dual loyalty and even subtle hints of treason. The United States is a country of immigrants that integrates White Europeans, Black Africans, Jews, Pakistani Muslims, Indian Hindus, Mexicans, and Asians. Its inclusiveness has been a source of strength. The elective attack on the Jewish neo-conservatives is not only groundless, but also un-American, for it contradicts the idealism for which the U.S. has been admired, that rejects racial and religious discrimination, preferring mutual tolerance and the protection of individual rights. Is it really worth it for the neo-conservatives’ adversaries to trample on these ideals in order to score points in a political debate?
The Shared Interests of Allies
What is equally disturbing about the effort to blame Israel for the Iraq War is the accompanying tendency to reject the notion that the U.S. and Israel are both allies with joint interests. Because Winston Churchill met with President Roosevelt before Pearl Harbor to discuss the joint interests of Britain and the U.S., does that mean that the British dragged the U.S. into the Second World War? The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington have only enlarged the scope of the joint interests of the U.S. and Israel to defeat global terrorist organizations that are harbored by rogue regimes in the Middle East. If Israel didn’t exist, that would remain a primary U.S. interest today.
Why did the U.S. go to war against Iraq? The declarations of the Bush administration are well-known regarding weapons of mass destruction and the war on terrorism. But wars are launched for multiple reasons, many of which are not always pronounced. The U.S. was attacked by the Japanese in 1941, but nonetheless decided on a “Europe-First” strategy to eliminate Nazi Germany, for Hitler’s hegemony over all of Europe was the greater threat. There is something persuasive about Richard Clarke’s thesis that in the case of Iraq, the dominant consideration was concern over the long-term stability of the House of Saud and the need for the U.S. to replace a shaky Saudi Arabia with an alternative friendly source of oil for the industrial West.21 Considering the widespread presence of al-Qaeda cells across virtually all parts of Saudi Arabia that now has become evident from repeated terrorist attacks during 2003/4, this American consideration has been proven to be prescient. But this has absolutely nothing to do with Israel.
Yet, many neo-isolationist critics of the Iraq War do not understand why America is fighting wars all of a sudden in the distant Middle East. Partly for that reason, they think America’s war on terrorism was caused by considerations related to Israel. During most of the twentieth century, the main threats to U.S. national security emanated from the European continent, evidenced by the decisions of past American administrations to enter World War I, World War II, and to extend the U.S. military umbrella over Europe during the Cold War.
Given the global pattern of non-conventional weapons proliferation, the spread of long-range delivery systems, and the sources of the current wave of international terrorism, the Middle East has replaced Europe as the region that poses the greatest threat to the American heartland. That fact has nothing to do with the purported lobbying efforts of a group of American citizens who have been singled out by irresponsible commentators. In the late 1930s, a group of racists charged Roosevelt, the British, and the Jews with forcing America into war. Their intellectual offspring are doing the same 70 years later.
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1. Saud Abu Ramadan, “Israel Inciting U.S. to Iraq War, Says Arafat,” Daily Times (Pakistan), May 30, 2004, http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/?page=story_3-3-2003_pg7_51.
2. Rebecca Phillips, “Dual Loyalty?: Are Israeli Interests ‘The Elephant in the Room’ in the Conflict with Iraq?” ABCNEWS.com, March 15, 2004, http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/Primetime/iraq_israel030315_bn.html.
3. “Gen. Zinni: ‘They’ve Screwed Up’,” CBSNEWS.COM, May 21, 2004, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/21/60minutes/printable618896.shtml.
4. “The Rise and Fall of Chalabi: Bush’s Mr. Wrong,” Newsweek World News website, May 31, 2004, http://msnbc.msn.com/id/5040831/.
5. Nathan Guttman, “Prominent U.S. Jews, Israel Blamed for Start of Iraq War,” Ha’aretz, May 31, 2004, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=433498&sw=prominent%20u.s.%20jews,%20israel%20blamed.
6. Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: Free Press, 2004), p. 265. There is also a passing reference in Bob Woodward’s book to Bush saying to Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia that the U.S. seeks to remove Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction “that could pose a threat to the Kingdom and/or to Israel.” It’s not clear from Woodward whether this quote came from his interviews in the White House or from the Saudis. Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 230.
7. Yediot Ahronot (Hebrew), April 11, 2004.
8. Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Commission of Inquiry Investigating the Intelligence System After the Iraq War, March 2004.
9. Uzi Rubin, “Beyond Iraq: Missile Proliferation in the Middle East,” Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 493, March 2, 2003, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, https://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp493.htm. Rubin was the father of Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic missile defense system.
10. Moshe Arens, “Missile Proliferation in the Middle East,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 2, No. 4, August 13, 2002, https://www.jcpa.org/brief/brief2-4.htm.
11. Yair Sheleg, “Ya’alon: Palestinian Threat is Cancerous,” Ha’aretz, August 26, 2002.
12. “Iran: We Retaliate If Israel Hits Our Nuclear Facilities,” AP/Ha’aretz, May 11, 2004.
13. Barry Schweid, “Israel Calls Iran ‘Biggest Threat’,” AP/Washington Post, November 7, 2001.
14. Richard Butler, “The Emerging Threat of Iraq and the Crisis of Global Security,” Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 437, September 1, 2000, https://www.jcpa.org/jl/jl437.htm.
15. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Report by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, June 6, 2003.
16. David Sawyer and William J. Broad, “Surprise Word on Nuclear Gains by North Korea and Iran,” New York Times, November 12, 2003.
17. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Countervailing Trends in American Jewry: An Interview with Norman Podhoretz,” Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 505, October 15, 2003, https://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp505.htm. See also Joshua Muravchik, “The Neoconservative Cabal,” Commentary, September 2003.
18. Maureen Dowd, “Necon Coup at the Department d’Etat,” New York Times, August 6, 2003.
19. David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 182.
20. Douglas J. Feith, “Wye and the Road to War,” Commentary, January 1999.
21. Woodward reports on an August 29, 2002, top secret memo called “Iraq: Goals, Objectives, and Strategy”: one key goal was “to minimize disruption in international oil markets.” Woodward, p. 228.
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Dore Gold is the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is the author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Regnery, 2003), and Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos (New York: Crown Forum, forthcoming November 2004).