Praising Bush for Iraq War, Sharon Sought Continued U.S. Involvement

When Ariel Sharon took the microphone at his White House press conference with President Bush this week, he didn’t begin with the usual praise for the strong U.S.-Israeli bond or press Israel’s case for U.S. aid.

Instead, the Israeli prime minister praised the U.S.-led war against Iraq and the changes Saddam Hussein’s demise would set in motion throughout the Middle East.

“Only you, Mr. President, have shown the courage, determination and leadership needed to spearhead the successful campaign to oust this ruthless, merciless despot, his dynasty and evil regime,” Sharon said Tuesday. “For the first time since World War II, the freedom- and peace-seeking democratic world had the wisdom to go after murderers and evil rulers and bring them to justice.”

For months, Israel has laid low regarding the Iraq war, trying to avoid any impression that the war was fought on Israel’s behalf.

That was similar to Israel’s fears during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This time around, many anti-war elements suggested that influential Jews in the Bush administration were pushing for war in order to help Israel.

But now, with President Bush under growing criticism for using erroneous intelligence information to make the case for war, Sharon’s support is seen as an important shot in the arm from an ally.

“It’s standing behind a friend and reminding people of the importance of removing a threat from the region,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “With the president under siege, this was really a statement of appreciation.”

Asked to explain Sharon’s statement, a senior Israeli official said Israel was aware of the Bush administration’s political problems.

But it goes beyond that. The official said the U.S. victory in Iraq is viewed as the catalyst for positive change in the region and that Sharon wants to encourage the United States to remain engaged.

The war “opened a new window of opportunity in our area,” the official said. “Without that, it would be harder to move forward with what we’re doing with the Palestinians.”

Some Israelis are concerned that the rising death toll in Iraq could lead to an early withdrawal of U.S. troops, possibly sparking more unrest. They want Bush to stay the course and use the current U.S. influence in the region to bring about changes in Syria and Iran.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Syria right after the war and told President Bashar Assad to close the Damascus offices of Palestinian terrorist groups, Assad felt pressured to shape up, the Israeli official said. But such pressure needs to be continuous, he said.

Syrian officials “were worried” then, he said.”They’re not worried today.”

Sharon’s statement also is seen as an endorsement of Bush’s efforts and tactics against international terrorism.

One U.S. Jewish leader said empathy also may have played a role in the comments. Israel, with its extensive experience against guerrilla-style adversaries, understands the constant threat of small- or large-scale attacks that American soldiers in Iraq face, he said.

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