Jews Duck Iraq Debate
The war drums are beating louder in Washington as the Bush administration thrashes out the details of its expected assault on Iraq. But Jewish groups, which have more reason than most to hope for an end to Saddam Hussein’s blood-soaked regime, have maintained a deafening silence.
While a broad spectrum of Jewish leaders believes the administration is heading in the right direction, many worry that Israel could suffer dire consequences if Washington doesn’t complete the journey.
Robert O. Freedman, a leading Mideast expert, said that many Jewish leaders “fear that if the U.S. gets bogged down in a war against Iraq, it will inflame Arab rage at both the U.S. and Israel, and will make things even worse for Israel than they are now.”
The result, he said,
is that while few Jewish leaders oppose U.S. action, there are strong concerns about the nature of those actions and the potential follow through.
“In my conversations with Israelis, both political and military, I’ve heard nothing but a recognition that the removal of Saddam could radically transform the Middle East for the better,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “But there is concern Israel could be targeted when the U.S. attack begins. There is a lot of contingency planning going on.”
The recent flurry of news leaks, threats and outright bluster from the administration has added to that anxiety.
Various factions within the administration are playing out their fight over Iraq strategy in the media. President George W. Bush has ratcheted up his warnings to Saddam in recent days, and some administration officials have leaked the news that an attack could be imminent, but others are just as busy arguing that it might be better to wait Saddam out.
“Either it’s disinformation, intended to overwhelm your opponent and keep him off balance — or it reflects incompetence and indecision,” said Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank.
So far, he said, it’s far from clear which is the engine behind the administration’s public hand-wringing, although Pipes said that if the decision is made to attack Iraq, “I believe it will be conclusive; I don’t think there’s a chance it will end as it did 11 years ago.”
A longtime pro-Israel lobbyist said that “there is a lot of evidence they just can’t settle on a course of action. That increases anxiety that Israel could get left holding the bag.”
Israeli officials are maintaining an even lower public profile as the debate in Washington churns on. At the same time, they are making military preparations for dealing with what could be the first side effect of a U.S. attack on Iraq: a new spasm of Iraqi violence against Israel.
And nobody is dismissing the possibility that this time, Saddam could resort to the weapons of mass destruction he has been working so hard to amass.
“There is a confidence we can deal with incoming missiles in a way we couldn’t in 1991,” an official of the Israeli government said this week. “And this time there won’t be coalition restraints on our actions. But it is very hard to predict what Saddam Hussein will do.”
Last week, the government announced it would build a second Arrow missile battery to defend the middle of the country against incoming missiles.
And there were reports in Jerusalem that the Sharon government has notified Washington it will respond forcefully to new Iraqi attacks — unlike 1991, when Israel, pressured by Washington, did not retaliate for more than 40 SCUD missile attacks.
Israeli officials are also continuing to press the administration for close military coordination in advance of a U.S. attack.
In particular, “Israel wants assurances that the U.S. will do its best to deny Iraq the use of its Western desert, if the U.S. attacks,” said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
Iraq used that region as a launching pad for SCUD missiles aimed at Israel in 1991; Israeli officials want assurances that U.S. forces will move quickly to neutralize the area, or a U.S. go-ahead for Israeli troops to do the job.
Bryen said Israeli officials are also worrying about Iranian-controlled medium-range missiles in Lebanon.
“The big issue for Israel is, under what conditions will the U.S. agree they should taken out?” she said. “Does Israel have to wait until they are actually used against Israeli targets?”
Israeli officials are also pressing their U.S. counterparts for as much advance warning of a U.S. attack as possible.
Pro-Israel leaders and Israeli officials say Washington has been cooperative on the military to military level, but that even with good coordination, Israel could sustain significant blows if Saddam lashes out after a U.S. strike — blows that will be worth sustaining only if Washington finishes the job and builds a stable, moderate Iraq.
A recent flurry of Internet messages have accused Jews of beating the drums for a war against Iraq that will only serve Israel’s interests. In fact, the Jewish leadership has been mostly mute on the subject.
“If the Jewish community has been quiet, it may reflect the fact that there is no particular Jewish angle to a policy matter with national and global implications,” said the AJCommittee’s Harris. “But I have very little doubt that if and when president goes ahead with military action, the vast majority of American Jews will stand behind him and our country.”
Israel Aid Money Caught In Political Showdown
The long battle over extra aid to help Israel cope with the costs of fighting terrorism took another unexpected and unwelcome turn this week when President George W. Bush said he would withhold $5.1 billion authorized as part of an Emergency Supplemental Spending bill approved by Congress last month.
The disputed appropriation includes $200 million in supplementary aid for Israel, as well as $50 million in humanitarian aid for the Palestinians. It also includes money for airport and embassy security, health programs for Sept. 11 rescue workers and international AIDS projects.
The White House contends that Congress used the emergency supplemental appropriation as a vehicle for a variety of pet programs. Killing the $5.1 billion catchall, a chunk of the overall $28.9 billion appropriation the president signed last week, will send a message that Bush intends to hold the line on the budget, administration officials said.
Congress wrote the legislation so that the president “would have to take it or leave it when it comes to the $5.1 billion,” said a congressional staffer this week. “The idea was they didn’t want him picking and choosing programs.”
This week Bush called the congressional bluff.
“Those who wrote the bill designed it so I have to spend all five of the extra billion dollars or spend none of it. … I understand their position, and today they’re going to learn mine,” Bush said in a speech to his economic forum in Texas on Tuesday.
Jewish members of Congress were quick to vent their outrage.
“This decision is unbelievable,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester). “Withholding these funds is a cynical attempt to avert attention from the administration’s failure to revive a stagnant economy.” Lowey said that as a result of the president’s decision, “Israel, which understands the vigilance required to fight terrorism, will be denied the emergency funds it so desperately needs to protect its citizens.”
Bush’s decision also means a setback in funding a health-monitoring system for 9-11 rescue workers and for Afghan reconstruction.
Pro-Israel forces are now looking at other vehicles for providing the extra $200 million — but the worsening federal budget situation will make that a tough challenge.
New ambassador gets running start
With the president in Texas and Congress scattered across the nation, Washington may be a ghost town in August. Even so, Danny Ayalon, Israel’s new ambassador, is starting his new job with a burst of energy.
Ayalon — whose arrival was delayed because of internal battles within the Sharon government — officially took up his duties last week, during the visit of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
In short order, the new envoy has met with a number of top administration officials, including Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Ayalon also participated in meetings with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
Ayalon did the talk show rounds and met with a long list of top Jewish leaders in Washington and New York.
By contrast, his predecessor, David Ivry, was frequently criticized for his aversion to television cameras and his dislike of appearances before demanding Jewish leaders.
At 47, Ayalon is the youngest Israeli ambassador since Yitzchak Rabin held the job in the late 1960s. He is a professional diplomat who also served as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political adviser.