The Israel Deal

Iraq, it's true, isn't precisely Vietnam: Vietnam is hellishly hot and humid, whereas Iraq is infernally hot and dry; Americans aren't dying as quickly in Iraq as they did in Nam; the justifications used to pull the United States into Iraq have proven false even more quickly than the arguments for fighting in Southeast Asia did.

But the Vietnam comparison does help to undermine an oft-repeated canard about the Iraq entanglement: that it served Israeli interests. There's evidence disproving that myth, starting with the historical.

We should learn from Vietnam that when the United States is neck deep in a quagmire, it is unable to fulfill commitments to Israel, to provide a strategic umbrella, or to work for Arab-Israeli peace. Without solid U.S. backing, Israel is more likely to rely on its military than on diplomacy, with costly results. In May 1967, as Vietnam raged, Egypt moved its troops into the Sinai Peninsula and closed the Straits of Tiran, sparking the crisis that led to the Six Day War. Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban went to Washington on an urgent mission, seeking assurances that the United States would support Israel if the latter were attacked and that it would open the straits -- as per longstanding commitments. Pro-Israel as President Lyndon Johnson was, his response fell short of that. In a tense White House meeting, he read a statement (preserved in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas) to Eban citing “constitutional processes” that stood in his way. Translation: With the United States sinking in Vietnam's mud, Congress wouldn't approve military action elsewhere. When Johnson did explore a congressional resolution allowing military action in the days after that meeting, his assessment proved true.

LBJ's paralysis convinced Israel that to survive, it had to act on its own, and quickly. On June 5, 1967, it launched its surprise attack. Despite wild hopes at the time, the Israeli victory did not push Arab countries to make peace; instead, it deepened the conflict and entangled Israel in its own quagmire in the occupied territories. Again, the United States had little diplomatic leverage, this time to press for peace. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated ruefully three days after the war ended in a National Security Council committee meeting, “Israelis won't ever depend on [American] guarantees. Eban [was] given [a] lesson in U.S. constitutional processes, and he won't ever forget it.” Only after a series of missed diplomatic openings, another disastrous Israeli-Arab war in 1973, and the U.S. exit from Vietnam did the United States turn its energies to Middle East peace efforts, eventually brokering the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979.

Fast-forward to 2004. Bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration, despite its pro-Israel talk, is AWOL from Israeli-Arab diplomacy. Openings such as the brief tenure of pro-peace Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in summer 2003 have been squandered as the administration devotes its limited diplomatic abilities to trying to salvage its Iraq strategy. Meanwhile, Israelis and Palestinians continue to die.

But historical precedent is just one hole in the conventional wisdom that invading Iraq was a benefit performance for Israel. Another is that Israel was deeply wary of the war. Before the invasion, Iraq was not at the top of Israel's concerns, and Israeli warnings about how things could go wrong were ignored by the Bush administration. Now, Israel is likely to suffer lasting consequences from the Bush team's mistakes. Put simply, if U.S. conservatives used Israel as justification for the war, it was either because they insisted on a superficial reading of Israel's needs or because Israel served as one more pretext for a policy that had become an idée fixe.

“The idea that the Iraq War was in any way driven by Israel's agenda I always thought was really quite bizarre,” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Clawson recalls that in the two years before the war began, “a stream of high-level Israeli officials” passed through his think tank, and “we heard consistently that Iraq was not Israel's priority, that even when it came to weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism, Israel was much more concerned about Iran than about Iraq.” Clawson says the Israeli officials made this view clear in discussions with “some of Israel's closest friends in the United States, including neoconservatives.” In addition, Clawson says, the Israelis were skeptical about quick democratization of the Middle East and worried that the United States was underestimating the difficulties in invading Iraq.

Israeli experts tell a similar story. Ofra Bengio, a Tel Aviv University scholar of contemporary Iraqi politics, argued before the invasion that Saddam Hussein had become a changed figure since the 1991 Gulf War, that his regime was steadily collapsing, and that he was willing to make concessions to hold on to power. One place she presented her analysis -- where it was ignored -- was at the CIA in October 2002. She also spoke at the Pentagon, where, citing Iraq's history and ethnic conflicts, she challenged administration claims that the country could be turned into a democracy overnight. Again, her warning was ignored.

“Iraq under Saddam made lots of noise, bells ringing,” adds leading Middle East analyst Guy Bechor of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, “but it did very little against Israel. Particularly after the Gulf War, it was clear to me that it had no weapons of mass destruction.” Other experts describe Iraq as having been a distant threat, years down the road, and only if Hussein held on to power and United Nations sanctions ended. Iraq “was not a true danger to Israel. It had the potential to develop into a danger,” says researcher Shlomo Brom of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, formerly head of strategic planning in the Israeli army's general staff. Therefore, he says, “There was no urgency to dealing with Iraq.”

In addition to doubting the Iraqi threat, Israeli academic experts also publicly questioned the Bush administration's assumption that a quick military victory over Hussein's troops would finish the fighting. I heard similar doubts about American overconfidence from within the Israeli army. In early April 2003, in the midst of the invasion, an Israeli colonel with a top role in strategic planning told me about a State Department conference on “the day after” in Iraq in which he had participated a few weeks before. “I asked the Americans, ‘What happens if tomorrow morning you run into fedayeen [guerrillas]?' They hadn't thought of that,” he told me, bemused, as we stood at a checkpoint intended to keep terrorists from crossing from the occupied West Bank into Israel. “They didn't think about the possibility that they'd conquer it, and then terror would begin as resistance to their army.”

Since then, Iraq under U.S. occupation has come unraveled. The consequences extend beyond Iraq's borders. To start with, says Bechor, while the United States promised democracy, the invasion shattered the social order and unleashed ethnic rivalries. “The American concept of democracy,” he says, is now perceived in Arab countries as “a danger to watch out for,” more likely to lead to chaos than democratization.

Likewise for the hope that overthrowing Hussein would reduce terrorism in the region. Iraq is at risk of becoming “a black hole of terror. You can see it already with al-Qaeda and its local version, [Jordanian jihadist] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” says Bechor. Without a strong regime, other terrorist groups may also find a haven. “Hollow” Arab countries -- defined by a border on a map but lacking central authority -- have historically posed a terrorist threat to Israel.

The disintegration in Iraq is also fueling tensions in neighboring countries, sparking chain reactions that hurt Israel. Turkey, for instance, has been Israel's key strategic ally in the region. Now, though, Ankara fears Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq and worries about a revival of close relations between the Kurds and Israel that existed in the 1960s and '70s. The result, says Bechor, is that Turkey is seeking better ties with Syria and Iran, which also have a “Kurdish problem,” at the expense of Israel. On the surface, Turkish coolness toward Israel comes from the Islamic government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. In fact, Bechor says, the change is sanctioned by the army, the real power in Turkey.

Uncertainty in Iraq also threatens Jordan, another country with close ties to Israel. “If there's a Shiite state on their border, it's bad for them,” says Bechor. “If there's a terrorist state, it's bad for them.” And a terrorist haven in Iraq may encourage the Islamic extremists fighting the Saudi regime -- hardly a friend of Israel, but better than those who would take its place.

Looking forward, the question is whether anarchy will continue in Iraq or be replaced by some form of stable government. No one in Israel expects a democracy; the best outcome, some analysts in Israel suggest, would be a pro-Western autocracy like Egypt. Given Iraq's Shia majority, Bechor argues, the most likely scenario is a Shia regime in part or all of Iraq, “more dangerous than Saddam's regime of rhetoric.” It could be intensely anti-Israel, might join forces with Iran, and could even bring Iranian nuclear weapons closer to Israel.

In the meantime, Iraq continues to sap U.S. energies, weakening U.S. deterrence elsewhere. A case in point, Clawson says, is Iran: Tehran can see that the United States is less able to create a diplomatic coalition or take military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program -- which has been Israel's real concern all along. Iran's recent testing of its Shihab-3 missile, reportedly capable of reaching Israel, can only increase Israeli fears.

But Israel's most immediate problem is the conflict with the Palestinians, which cannot be resolved without intense U.S. diplomatic involvement. As long as the United States is tied down in Iraq, argues Brom, it won't be able to invest energy in reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. “Attention is also a limited resource,” he argues. For anyone interested in ending the bloodshed of the past four years, he says, a distracted America is bad news.

The Iraq experience confirms the lesson of 1967: When an American administration is overextended militarily and politically, its support for Israel is weakened. But American adventures in Iraq are worse for Israel than were those in Vietnam. That's because, this time around, the Bush administration's misadventure is destabilizing Israel's immediate neighborhood. Justifying the war in Israel's name can be added to the long list of other justifications that have proven hollow -- and to the evidence of how badly the Bush administration has understood the Middle East.

Gershom Gorenberg is a Prospect senior correspondent. He is the author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount.

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