Efraim “Effi” Eitam, a leader of Israel’s right-wing Orthodox Zionist camp, is criticizing President Bush’s Iraq policy, saying it could end up undermining efforts to confront Iran.
Eitam, who sits on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and is the leader of the Renewed National Religious Zionist party, spent three days last week in Washington briefing the administration, Congress and think tanks about the Iranian threat. Eitam told the Forward that, during his trip, he criticized Bush’s decision to send more troops to Baghdad and the emphasis that his administration is putting on spreading democracy.
The main concern, Eitam said, is that the continuing presence of American troops in Iraq would make it hard to build support for an American strike against Iran.
“The most important commodity we have is the U.S. support for war against Iran, so we need to build on this,” he said. “The administration is unpopular but can still take a strategic decision on Iran. Still, I’m concerned Bush is so committed to Iraq that he will lose the possibility of dealing with Iran.”
Eitam said that Bush’s message to the American public should be that although Iraq was the wrong war, the principle of depriving a rogue state from acquiring nuclear weapons is still a good one.
“The wrong target has been shot,” he said. “You get a second chance to shoot the right one…. The original goal of the war in Iraq was WMDs, not democracy, and I tell them this is still true.”
Eitam presents an unusual blend of security and religious credentials. He pursued a military career, retiring as a brigadier-general in 2000 after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, where he commanded the troops in the south. As head of the National Religious Party, he was minister in several government coalitions between 2002 and 2004.
His outright opposition to concessions to the Palestinians, his attacks on the loyalty of Israeli Arabs and a well-publicized scuffle with the police in the West Bank last year have made him a polarizing figure.
During his trip to Washington, Eitam advised his “Iraq-obsessed” interlocutors to redeploy to pro-American countries in the region, reaffirm their commitment to stay in the Middle East and make it clear that they will prevent Tehran from going nuclear. In doing so, he effectively brushed aside the democracy-spreading agenda backed by the administration, and the recent plan to put more American troops into Baghdad to quell the sectarian violence.
Despite tepid public support in America for another military venture in the Middle East, Eitam asserted that he sensed strong bipartisan support in Washington for using all available means to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Eitam noted that while American intelligence disagreed a year ago with Israel’s assessment that Iran was three to four years away from reaching a critical point, Washington now endorses Jerusalem’s estimates.
“Everybody now agrees that we have three to four years before we reach a point where the Iranian project can’t be reversed,” he said. “We are not talking about the time when they will have the knowledge, but when they will have a bomb and the missile to deliver it.”
While he did not openly call for military action, Eitam noted that the Iranian program was currently at a stage where “it is big enough to be understood but small enough to be destroyed.”
Asked about the danger of Iran retaliating against Jerusalem and Washington in the event of a military strike by Israel or the United States, Eitam struck a confident tone.
“We have the Arrows system to stop missiles, we are now better prepared to deal with Hezbollah and if the U.S. redeploys in Iraq, it will make the troops safer,” he said. “So what’s the risk of three months of systematic strikes against nuclear facilities, which will end up delaying their program?”
Eitam said that even if Israel were to carry out strikes on its own, it would need American support for refueling, as well as authorization to fly over Iraq and intelligence cooperation. “This is why I tell the Americans that they will be seen as being part of it anyway, which is why they should prepare accordingly,” he said.
The Israeli lawmaker dismissed the claims by pro-American Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan that progress on the Palestinian track would help produce a robust unified front against Tehran.
“This is just propaganda,” he said. “They want us to stop the Iranian nuclear program, we don’t need progress on the Palestinian issue. The Saudis should salute us for taking care of this, so this idea that we have to give something to the Palestinians is just rubbish.”
He went on to claim that the Palestinian question was marginal in those countries, and he dismissed the notion that Israeli occupation of the West Bank was inflaming the Arab public throughout the region.
Eitam, who quit the Sharon government in 2004 because of Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza, said that the violent aftermath and chaos of the disengagement from there — as well as from Lebanon — had discredited the land-for-peace paradigm.
“No one will want to try this again unless there is a very fundamental change on the Palestinian side, which may take decades,” Eitam said. In the meantime, he added, Israel has proved that it could contain the terrorist threat by erecting the security fence.
Eitam said that he expected to play a prominent role in any future government headed by Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the Likud party and is a former prime minister. During his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu upset many settler leaders by agreeing to Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. But this time, Eitam said, “I will be nearby him.” Eitam added, “He has wounds, and he has matured.”