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Jewish groups keep mum on Iraq


David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. (AJCommittee)

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. (AJCommittee)

WASHINGTON, July 30 (JTA) — With plans for a U.S. attack against Iraq being formulated within the Bush administration and garnering front-page headlines, American Jewish leaders are wondering how loudly to raise their voices. Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum support the plans for regime change in Iraq, believing it would be in the best interests of both Israel and the United States. But some analysts say Jewish leaders are trying to keep a low profile out of concern that critics might say America is attacking Iraq to benefit Israel. “Why should it be a Jewish or Israeli issue?” asked Morris Amitay, a pro-Israel activist and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “We should stay as patriotic as the next guy, but not be out front.” The debate in Jewish organizations closely reflects the groups’ conundrum before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Jewish leaders largely supported the first President Bush’s plans to attack Iraq, and worked to rouse congressional support for the war. But then too, Jewish leaders were hesitant to speak out, fearing that some would think America had gone to war for Israel because of American Jewish pressure on Congress. Those concerns were fueled in part by comments from Pat Buchanan, the conservative former presidential candidate, who said that Israel and its “amen corner” in the United States were trying to push the Bush administration into war. “It was a partisan issue,” said one official with a Jewish organization. “Jews were very supportive but very uneasy about being put out front.” There seems to be a bit less concern today. “It was clear in ’91 that there was no backlash,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “The dire predictions of some were just plain wrong.” Some Americans may be apprehensive about attacking Iraq, worrying about the possibility of casualties, economic disruption or retaliatory terrorism. But unlike the situation a decade ago, this administration has framed the prospect of attacking Iraq in a broader, more publicly acceptable light as part of the U.S.-led international war on terrorism. A change of regime in Baghdad still would benefit Israel, but the Jewish state is not seen as the sole, or even primary, beneficiary of a war. “The administration has made it very clear that this is an American concern,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “The American community is united in this war, and the president has done a good job of pointing that out.” But that does not necessarily mean American Jewish groups will take a higher profile. “Many in the American Jewish community don’t feel the necessity of speaking out when the policy direction already seems quite clear, and to many, seems like it is headed in the right direction,” Harris said. “We’ll be supporting, rather than leading,” one Jewish official agreed. “Everybody’s waiting for the bells to go off.” But Neumann said he believes JINSA could be more vocal. “We’re going to make a stronger statement and make a more in-depth statement,” he said. The Jewish community views an attack on Iraq as advantageous on several levels. First, any action against Iraq would come in part because of the country’s role in fostering international terrorism. Iraq is seen as a haven for Al-Qaida, the organization behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Second, a regime change in Iraq would be in Israel’s best interest. Iraq’s production of weapons of mass destruction and apparent willingness to use them are a constant threat to Israel’s security, as well as the security of other American allies in the region such as Turkey. Third, American engagement in Iraq could help Israel’s standing in its conflict with the Palestinians. President Saddam Hussein has been financially assisting Palestinian terrorist groups and giving funds to the families of suicide bombers. Many believe Hussein would try to rally Arab governments to his side by attacking Israel. In addition, some argue that overthrowing Hussein would send a strong message to the Palestinians about the consequences of terrorism. American Jewish groups do have some concern about how an attack on Iraq will affect Israel. In 1991, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was pressured not to retaliate for Iraqi missile attacks on Israel. Israel expected that its restraint would win stronger American support, but soon after the war Bush engaged in an open standoff with Shamir over Israeli settlement policy. The administration also pressured Israel — over Shamir’s objections — to attend a Mideast peace conference in Madrid. This time around, Israeli officials have stressed that they will indeed retaliate if targeted, but some are worried that the United States may again urge restraint. Additionally, if the Bush administration seeks international support for an attack on Iraq, the White House could promise progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — often a euphemism for Israeli concessions — in exchange for Arab support. Arab leaders, it appears, will seek to link the two issues. Jordan’s King Abdullah already has said it would be “somewhat ludicrous” for the United States to seek regime change in Iraq without first making progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But that seems to be less of a concern than in the Gulf War. White House officials have told Jewish leaders that the Bush administration is “past that point” of linking the two issues. Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the fact that the Bush administration has laid out coherent end games for both fronts — an eventual Palestinian state with new leadership and a change of regime in Iraq — lessens the concerns that one will be bartered for the other. Lasensky said the Bush administration does not need American Jewish support for an attack on Iraq, and that it even could be counterproductive. “There is the concern that the old specter of linkage could be revived by an overzealous advocacy campaign by supporters of Israel in the United States,” he said. While this is not a major concern, he said, the more American Jews speak out, the more that danger will rise. Lasensky recommended that supporters of Israel limit their advocacy to issues directly related to Israel, such as Iraq’s support of Palestinian suicide bombers. Even if the Jewish community is ready to speak out, now is not seen as the right time. The Bush administration will need to detail its plans before the Jewish community will get involved, if they get involved at all, leaders say. “My assumption is that those who are supportive will find a way to express it to the White House, Congress and the general public,” Harris said.