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Former Defense Official Offers Grim Mideast View

WASHINGTON — A former undersecretary of defense is saying that Israel is missing an opportunity to leave the territories and has tried the patience of an extremely sympathetic president.

In his first interview since leaving the Bush administration, Dov Zakheim’s take on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was grim.

“It’s a huge mistake,” Zakheim said, referring to the widely held view that the Bush administration isn’t eager to take steps to promote a solution to the dispute. In his opinion, Israel is wrong to interpret affirmations of unqualified support on security issues made by the Bush administration as America’s desire to preserve the status quo, or even as a lack of interest in the dispute.

In an interview at his new office as vice president of the consulting firm Booz-Allen-Hamilton, Zakheim also weighed in on the situation in Iraq, about which his views were more optimistic. Zakheim insisted that, when viewed from the Pentagon, the situation in Iraq does not look so bleak. The causes for the war were entirely plausible, he said — and insisted most Iraqis support the United States.

Zakheim, an Orthodox Jew who defines himself as a friend of Israel, was, before his departure, one of three prominent Jews in the Defense Department, alongside Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. But in contrast to Wolfowitz and Feith, Zakheim is not readily identified as a neoconservative. He calls himself a conservative from the old school, and he admits to being troubled by the growing chorus of voices in the United States that blame Jewish neocons for promoting the war in Iraq.

Zakheim said claims about the war in Iraq being orchestrated to help Israel are ridiculous. Were this to be the case, he said, Bush would have referred to the plan during the 2000 Presidential elections and promised that he would fight against Saddam Hussein in order to save Israel. After his more than three years in the Pentagon, Zakheim believes that the toppling of Saddam didn’t have much impact on Israel: The war in Iraq did little to improve Israeli security, he claimed. Asked whether Israel is safer today because of the war in Iraq, he said: “No. Israel’s problem is with the Palestinians.”

Zakheim’s last visit to Israel was in March, a short time before he left his post as Defense Department comptroller. This visit, like preceding trips in recent years, made Zakheim feel uneasy. “Every time I go to Israel, it looks dirtier than before,” he complained. “Jerusalem is a disgrace to look at. Each time I go there, it looks more and more like a garbage can.”

Zakheim’s grievances are not limited to aesthetics. He believes Israel’s situation is deteriorating in all respects because of its investment in settlements. “You’re taking money out of education, money out of welfare, money out of jobs, money out of infrastructure, and pouring it into the West Bank,” he said. “Israel’s society is suffering a lot as a result of the settlements.”

Framing his arguments as an economist, Zakheim calls for Israeli withdrawal from the territories. Asked about whether the United States should help pay for the removal of settlements, he shrugged his shoulders. “We should pay for their mishegas?” he said of the settlers.

Israelis who worked with Zakheim are full of praise for his professionalism. Although he always upheld American interests, they say, he had a warm place in his heart for Israel and he did as much as he could to help. For example, after the start of the intifada, when it became clear that Israel’s police force lacked equipment to defuse bombs, Zakheim found funds and arranged a transfer of $28 million for automatic gear used by sappers.

Zakheim claims to have had much less influence over the course of events in Iraq. “I wasn’t in policy,” Zakheim said, referring to these dramatic developments. “I was trying to implement the policy.”

Although he says he objects to “nation building” as an objective in American foreign policy, he believes the war in Iraq was justified.

During a visit to Iraq last year, Zakheim recalled, he entered one of Saddam’s palaces and witnessed a room in which the Iraqi dictator stored a collection of prized whiskey. “From the floor to the ceiling, he had stored up crates of the best single malt, all from ‘oil for food.’ So why should he lie to the world?”

Alongside such claims about corruption in Saddam’s regime, Zakheim brings up the issue of terror. Given Saddam’s well-known support for Palestinian suicide bombers, “why is it so hard to believe that he had ties with Al Qaeda?” Zakheim wondered. “If you make the connection — Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism — then it definitely becomes a world problem,” he concluded.

The situation today, he continues, is not bad at all. In terms of the big picture, the Middle East is better off without Saddam. The majority of Iraqis support America’s presence; and the world is starting to stand behind the United State’s effort. Resistance by rebel groups will be defeated, Zakheim predicts. “So the balance is definitely positive.”

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