Groups Mute Criticism of Iraq Report

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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Jewish and pro-Israel groups, after initially greeting the report of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group with outrage, have begun to mute their criticisms on the basis of assurances that the Bush administration will not adopt the report’s proposed linkage between Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Public and private statements by administration officials have convinced leaders of the organized Jewish community to refrain from actively opposing the report, produced by a bipartisan panel co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker, a Republican, and ex-congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat.

“All we are hearing,” said an official at one major Jewish agency, “is that Bush has no plans to shift his Middle East policy and that he will choose not to adopt the recommendations in the Baker report that have to do with that.”

President Bush is expected to conclude his consultations on a new Iraq policy in the next week and to announce his decisions by year’s end. The administration has made it clear that the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations will be only one source of guidance.

The part of the report that most angered pro-Israel activists was the attempt to link a solution in Iraq to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The situation in Iraq is linked with events in the region,” the report reads. “Several Iraqi, U.S., and international officials commented to us that Iraqi opposition to the United States — and support for [Shi’ite radical Moqtada] Sadr — spiked in the aftermath of Israel’s bombing campaign in Lebanon.” Events in Syria, Iran and Afghanistan are also cited as bearing on Iraq.

The report calls for an American and international effort to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict, based on U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 and on Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Baker and Hamilton also recommend that America engage with Syria and Iran to solve the regional problems regarding Iraq.

In a December 7 conference call of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, leaders of most groups voiced reservations over this part of the Iraq Study Group report and called for action to block any Israel-Iraq linkage. Israel’s consul general in New York, Arye Mekel, who took part in the discussion, reportedly said that while Israel will not try to intervene in an American decision-making process, it hopes to make clear that the two disputes are unrelated. Mekel, according to several participants, portrayed the report as negative from Israel’s standpoint and said that Baker is responsible for the report’s language on Israel. Other participants, including Aipac executive director Howard Kohr, stressed the importance of ensuring that the recommendations seen as linking Israel and Iraq are not adopted.

The only dissenting voice in the call was that of Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum, who said the Jewish community should not lose sight of the need to support peace efforts in the Middle East. “I’m against any linkage,” Reich later told the Forward, “but at the same time it’s important to open every door that can lead to negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Numerous Jewish groups issued statements last week opposing the Baker-Hamilton report. The Anti-Defamation League accused the study group of falling “into the traps of inappropriately linking stability in Iraq to a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The American Jewish Committee called the report’s call for a new diplomatic offensive “old thinking” based on unsuccessful diplomatic efforts. The Zionist Organization of America said the report’s recommendations would “cripple the war on Islamist terror.”

Aipac refrained from directly questioning the report, but issued a statement detailing Iran’s actions in the region and calling Iran the major source of instability.

The only group openly supporting the report was Americans for Peace Now, which called on Bush to adopt the recommendations in full. “It is gratifying that a bipartisan panel, comprised of seasoned policy experts, has reached conclusions that should have intuitively been adopted by this administration long ago,” said Debra DeLee, the group’s president.

While criticizing recommendations in the report dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most Jewish leaders refrained from dismissing the report altogether. “Anything we do about this report should be sensitive to the entire report and to its recommendations, which are basically good,” said Rabbi Steven Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. He added that the Jewish community should “be wise in the way it responds.”

The president of the Arab American Institute, James Zogby, called the Jewish organizations’ response a “knee jerk reaction,” saying that America needs to restore its credibility in the Arab world. “It is possible to go on with a ‘U.S. and Israel against the world’ policy, but then Iraq will disintegrate and Iran will take over. Will Israel be stronger then?”

Israeli officials took a cautious approach. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called on his ministers to avoid commenting, calling it an internal American issue. At the same time, Olmert said he had no reason to believe the administration would change its attitude toward Syria or Iran.

In private conversations, Israeli officials expressed outrage over the report, arguing that the committee — while interviewing eight Arab ambassadors and many other Arab officials, spoke only to one Israeli, Ephraim Sneh. He is described in the report as deputy defense minister, though when interviewed he was only a member of Knesset.

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