In sharp contrast to the growing consensus of Jerusalem’s security and political establishment, President Bush argued this week that Israel’s safety depends on democratization of the Arab world.
“If you’re a supporter of Israel, I would strongly urge you to help other countries become democracies,” President Bush declared Monday, in a major address defending American policy in Iraq and his wider vision for the region. “Israel’s long-term survival depends upon the spread of democracy in the Middle East.”
Israeli security officials argued the opposite view at this month’s American-Israeli strategic dialogue, warning that regime change and democratization threatened to destabilize the Middle East. Israel sees its security tied to regimes such as Egypt and Jordan, and fears that democratization could turn those countries against Israel.
“I am skeptical when it comes to the supposition that democracy is a panacea. Not all democracies are good,” said General Shlomo Brom, former chief of the Israeli army’s strategic planning division. “What about a democracy in Egypt — let’s say — which is governed by the Muslim Brotherhood? Would Egypt then have better relations with Israel than under Mubarak’s regime?”
As the American-Israeli debate quietly heats up, the Bush administration’s approach is creating fault lines within the Jewish community. On Tuesday, the Republican Jewish Coalition took out a full-page advertisement attacking the Reform synagogue movement over its recent call for the United States to develop an exit strategy for the war in Iraq.
Neither the Republican Jewish Coalition ad nor the Reform statement mentioned Israel. But some pro-Israel activists and Israeli observers criticized Bush’s comments, saying they could end up fueling claims that Jerusalem and Jewish groups pushed the United States into an unpopular war.
“American Jews don’t want American soldiers to be dying for Israel,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, a public-policy coordinating umbrella group consisting of 13 national organizations and 123 local community-relations councils.
“Would Israel benefit from democracy in the Middle East? Yes. But so would Europe, and America and the whole international community,” Raffel said. “So why would the president select supporters of Israel? Supporters of Western civilization would want to see democratization in the Middle East, along with Israel.”
Israeli experts voiced similar concerns.
“It could put Israel in a very awkward situation with the American public, if Israel would be the excuse for losing more American soldiers every day,” said Danny Rothschild, a retired major general who once served as the Israeli army’s top administrator in the West Bank.
In a speech on Wednesday, Bush criticized anti-war opponents who would suggest that America went to war for Israel. At the same, he and other Republicans defending his foreign policy by linking it to Israel’s security needs.
Senator John Warner of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently argued in an interview with MSNBC that a premature American pullout would “put Israel in a very tenuous and vulnerable position.” And a GOP activist, Bruce Blakeman, told the Forward that Israel’s security has always played a key role in the president’s thinking on Iraq.
“The president realized not only that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America, but that Saddam Hussein had designs on attacking Israel,” said Blakeman, whose brother Brad is a former Bush aide. “There was a concern that an attack on Israel would turn into a regional war, with Syria and Iran joining in on Iraq’s side.”
While some Israelis and Jewish communal leaders worried about Bush’s remarks, Blakeman told the Forward that “concern for the well-being of Israel is not confined to the Jewish community.”
“The vast majority of Americans realize that Israel is a strong democracy in a region where there has been no democracy and an ally that shares our values,” Blakeman said.
But several Israeli experts insisted that any pro-war argument — even a valid one — linked to Israel’s security could end up undermining American public support for the American-Israeli relationship. And while most Israeli experts contacted by the Forward predicted that an American withdrawal would unleash a wave of terrorism directed at American allies in the region, several still challenged the premise that the United States should remain in Iraq.
“I maintain that the U.S. presence there actually causes harm to some of our interests,” said Brom, who is currently a guest scholar at the federally funded United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “Take Iran. America’s presence in Iraq does not allow an appropriate dealing with the Iranian problem. It also erodes, over time, the powerful image of the United States. That’s not good for Israel, as an ally of the U.S.”
Still, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said few dispute that a premature pullout would create instability, threatening several U.S. allies, including Israel, and several Arab states. “That is not to say that we went to war because of Israel or we stayed at war because of Israel,” Hoenlein said, “but one of the consequences of making the wrong step of leaving Iraq prematurely would be Israel.… I don’t think that there is any division in the Jewish community that I know of on that.”
A very public dispute did erupt this week between Jewish groups over Iraq, with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Republican Jewish Coalition exchanging rhetorical blows. At issue was the Reform union’s resolution last month calling for a strategy to end America’s presence in Iraq.
On Tuesday, the Republican group published a full-page ad in The New York Times, addressing the Union for Reform Judaism and stating: “Freedom is worth fighting for.” The ad was signed by several prominent Jewish Republican elected officials, former ambassadors, senior military officers, rabbis and former senior officials with Jewish groups. The Republican ad argues that it is “misleading and wrong” for the Reform movement to suggest that “American Jews oppose the president on Iraq.”
By Tuesday evening, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein, had sent a scathing open letter to the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks. The Reform union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and its chairman of the board, Robert Heller, sent a letter to Bush.
“Respectfully but firmly, Mr. President, we want our leaders to tell us the truth, the whole of it, and we therefore call on your administration to adopt a policy of transparency,” Yoffie and Heller wrote. “With regard to troop withdrawal, we call not only for a clear exit strategy but also for specific goals for troop withdrawal to commence after the completion of parliamentary elections scheduled for later this week and then to be continued in a way that maintains stability in Iraq and empowers Iraqi forces to provide for their national security.”
With Reporting by Ori Nir in Washington, Guy Leshem in Tel Aviv, and Ami Eden and E.J. Kessler in New York.