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War in Iraq Arabs Incensed That Bush Choice to Rebuild Iraq Seen As ‘pro-israel’

March 26, 2003
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The mission of rebuilding Iraq after the war has fallen to a general who has visited Israel and is being portrayed in the Arab world as biased in favor of the Jewish state.

The Bush administration has selected retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner to direct the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Post-War Iraq. He will coordinate the civil administration after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is ousted, and will aid the transition to new leadership.

A former assistant chief of staff in the Army, Garner, 64, traveled to Israel in 1998 with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Two years later he signed on to an October 2000 letter that praised Israeli restraint in the face of Palestinian violence and urged the United States not to let its role as a peace facilitator hamper its responsibilities as a friend to Israel.

“Friends don’t leave friends on the battlefield,” the statement read.

The appointment of Garner has enraged some Arab leaders, who claim that putting a “pro-Israel” leader in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq will only feed accusations that the war is being fought for Israel’s benefit.

“People in the Arab world are completely amazed by the Iraq policy, they don’t get it, and the view that Israel is behind it all is one that is gaining strength,” said Hussein Ibish, director of communications for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The concern over Garner’s relationship with Israel highlights the politically sensitive nature of regime change in Iraq, a country that has threatened Israel for decades and launched 39 missiles at Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It also shows growing concern about the Bush administration’s plans for the broader Middle East, specifically calls for democratization of the region.

Ibish says bringing in an administrator who some Arabs see as pro-Israel hurts the chances for a successful regime change. Ibish said Garner’s appointment is a sign that the Bush administration either does not understand Arab public opinion or does not care.

“It’s incredible that the administration would not be sensitive to what impression that would lend to other Arabs and Iraqis themselves about what sort of occupation this would be,” he said.

But Jewish leaders are rejecting the charge that visiting or supporting Israel should disqualify Garner from any service in the Middle East.

“If I were Jay Garner, I would be enormously offended that for visiting Israel for 10 days, I was disqualified from serving the American government in some capacity in an Arab country,” said Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for JINSA. She noted the large number of former military leaders that visit Israel each year.

Bryen says Garner “has never failed to do anything I’ve asked of him,” including signing letters and advising JINSA on military matters. But, she added, Garner has not been active in JINSA since his 1998 trip, and is not among the organization’s core group of military liaisons.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called Garner’s support of Israel “irrelevant.”

“Should this administration look for someone who is anti-Israel?” Hoenlein asked. “The fact that he supports a close ally of the United States is natural.”

A State Department spokesman said Garner was an excellent choice for the job because of extensive experience with reconstruction issues in the former Yugoslavia.

“That’s what his detractors should be focused on,” Gregg Sullivan said. “That’s the criteria for which he was chosen.”

Still, Ibish said, “There are lots of other people in the United States who could do this that aren’t in the pro-Israel lobby, which JINSA is a member of.”

Arabs are concerned that Garner will push new leadership in Iraq that would foster a relationship with Israel, a state they see as an occupier and enemy of Arabs, Ibish said.

Leaders of the Iraqi National Congress, which operates out of London and has close ties to the Bush administration, have been working with American Jewish groups in the past few months, expressing an interest in building relationships with the Israeli government.

Entifadah Qanbar, the INC’s Washington office director, told JTA last October that he believes that good relations with Israel are possible under a new regime because, he said, Saddam is the one who has a problem with Israel, not the Iraqi people.

Others dispute that analysis, saying that decades of fiercely anti-Israel indoctrination mean it will take time before the Iraqi public, under any government, would be willing to accept Israel.

In any case, the INC is just one of several groups seeking a share of power after Saddam is removed from Iraq. The group does not have a large following in Iraq, and it’s unclear how prominent a role it will play.

Bryen says it’s too early to speculate on whether Garner’s job will even give him an opportunity to work on Iraqi-Israeli relations. If so, it would mean his role would move beyond humanitarian concerns and into political matters, and would require an Iraqi leadership interested in improving ties.

“If he has a political mission, it’s better for people with a political mission to have good feelings about Israel,” she said.

Garner retired in 1997 and became president of SY Technology, a Virginia company that provides communication and targeting systems for missiles. It was bought last year by L-3 Communications, from which Garner has taken a leave of absence.

Garner also helped lead a humanitarian effort for Kurds in northern Iraq after the 1991 war.

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