The Ground Shifts

Published May 28, 2004, issue of May 28, 2004.
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The ground shifted this week, subtly but critically, in the ongoing debate over the role of Israel in America’s Iraq policy, one more step in the growing insecurity facing Jews and the Jewish state in the wake of the Iraq war.

As recently as a week ago, reasonable people still could dismiss as antisemitic conspiracy mongering the claim that Israel’s security was the real motive behind the invasion of Iraq. No longer. The allegation has now moved from the fringes into the mainstream. Its advocates can no longer simply be shushed or dismissed as bigots. Those who disagree must now argue the case on the merits.

What changed this week, most importantly, was the entry into the debate of the very respectable Anthony Zinni, the retired Marine general and former Middle East mediator. Appearing on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” last Sunday, Zinni said it was “the worst-kept secret in Washington” that a group of neoconservative thinkers had pushed for invading Iraq in order to make the Middle East more democratic — and safer for Israel. “Everybody I talk to in Washington has known and fully knows what their agenda was and what they were trying to do,” Zinni said. And in saying it, he changed the terms of the debate. He is not one to be waved off.

Saying Zinni has a right to his views is not the same as saying he’s right. For our money, the idea that a small group of bureaucrats and ideologues effectively hijacked American policy and cooked up a war is simplistic. Those who sought to topple Saddam Hussein believed he was a threat both to Israel and to America. Nobody was more committed to removing that threat than George Bush.

Whatever else may be said of Bush, he has a clear vision of the world — perhaps too clear — and he has been consistent in acting on it. He may be driving America’s ship of state “over Niagara Falls,” as Zinni put it, but he’s doing it with his eyes open.

The notion that invading Iraq was a neoconservative scheme, foisted on American policy-makers for Israel’s benefit, has been simmering just beyond the borders of acceptable politics since the Bush administration began visibly preparing for war in the winter of 2003. Though popular in Europe, the notion was articulated in this country mainly by longtime critics of Israel who could easily be dismissed as conspiracy theorists. The Israel link was mentioned repeatedly in the major media — “Meet the Press,” the Washington Post — as an idea that was in play, but virtually no mainstream figure would admit to believing it. Most of America took the administration at its word that the drive to war was motivated — rightly or wrongly — by a belief that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda.

And here is the other shift in the debate. The collapse of the two main justifications for war — the weapons and the Al Qaeda link — has left Middle East democratization as the one believable motive. Once that was established, it was only a matter of time before the Israel question resurfaced.

Zinni is the second major Washington figure to make the accusation publicly this month. Senator Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat with an unfortunate history of ethnic slurs, said much the same thing in a newspaper essay May 6 and was roundly attacked for it. Both the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee accused him of resurrecting age-old “Jewish conspiracy” myths and demanded that he retract his statement. Instead, Hollings rose on the floor of the Senate on May 20, and repeated his charge.

Zinni went public the following Sunday. He didn’t have the bully pulpit of the U.S. Senate, but he had something at least as powerful: credibility. A genuine Pentagon star, Zinni is a former chief of the U.S. Central Command, in charge of all American troops in the Middle East. He also served as President Bush’s special Middle East envoy in the winter of 2002 and 2003, overseeing Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy during the months that Washington was preparing for war in Iraq. He’s not merely theorizing about how American policy was formed; he was there.

The truth is, of course, that Zinni is partly right — but only partly. Securing Israel was one of the war hawks’ motives, but not the only one, probably not even the main one. Saddam’s regime genuinely threatened the stability of the region, as the United Nations Security Council had unanimously agreed the previous fall. Other threats were growing in seriousness, not least Al Qaeda, which had struck in September 2001 and was seeking to expand its reach. Then, too, the ideological predilections of the Bush administration — particularly its moral absolutism and its suspicion of international agreements — hampered its ability to interpret these threats and shape an effective response.

More than any other, it is that last factor — the administration’s unilateralism — that has most colored perceptions of Israel over the past year. By going to war before he had exhausted all diplomatic options, by failing to assemble a genuinely international coalition, by failing to line up moderate Arab support as his father did in 1991, Bush set in motion a catastrophic chain of events that has left the world less stable than it was before. The threat of terrorism has increased, not declined. Movements that were separate and distinct before the war — Iraqi Baathism, Al Qaeda fundamentalism, Palestinian nationalism — are making common cause more than ever, becoming the global threat that we had imagined them to be. Jewish institutions around the world have been forced to fortify themselves like military installations. And in the midst of all this stands America — alone against much of the world — with Israel by its side, more alone and threatened than it was before.

Rep. Nita Lowey told the Forward this week that because of Bush’s policies, Jews are less safe than they were. Stating that fact doesn’t lessen the responsibility of those who threaten and attack Jews. It merely acknowledges the staggering ineptitude of the administration in meeting those threats. Bush surely didn’t mean to make things worse, but that’s what he did.

And now the greatest irony: As Americans become bitter over these catastrophic events, they may yet vent their anger on the oldest scapegoat of all.

The line between legitimate debate and scapegoating is a fine one. Friends of Israel will be tempted to guard that line by labeling as antisemites those who threaten to cross it. They already have begun to do so. But it is a mistake. Israel and its allies stand accused of manipulating America’s public debate for their own purposes. If they were to succeed in suppressing debate to protect themselves, it only would prove the point. Better to follow the democratic path: If there is bad speech, the best reply is more speech.

Besides, the fight already may have been lost. Exposing antisemites can be an effective weapon when it succeeds in shaming the bigots, or isolating them. These days, as we learned from Mel Gibson, those who stand accused of antisemitism seem increasingly able to portray themselves as victims — as Hollings and Zinni already have done. It is not Israel’s enemies but its friends that are isolated. That’s another thing that’s changed.

If this was a war to protect Israel, then heaven shield us from our protectors.






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