Washington - Retired general Wesley Clark drew harsh criticism this week after reportedly saying that “New York money people” are pushing America into a war against Iran.
By Tuesday, Clark, a past and likely future Democratic candidate for president, was working to assure Jewish groups that he was in no way attempting to advance an antisemitic conspiracy theory. But the controversy still had Jewish organizations bracing for a new wave of claims that they are the driving force behind any future military strikes against Tehran.
The flap comes as Israeli politicians in the government, as well as the opposition, have been lobbying more publicly for an international hard line against Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Until the middle of last year, Israel focused its efforts on more behind-the-scenes international diplomacy, making its intelligence information available to world powers in order to convince them that Iran is becoming a growing threat to the entire region. Lately, Israel decided to take the Iranian issue to the public arena, as well, making it the leading issue on the agenda in public speeches and press briefings.
Several Israeli sources have stressed that Jerusalem is still urging the international community to put diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran in order to force it to give up its nuclear ambitions.
American Jewish groups have also stepped up their advocacy efforts regarding Iran, though they generally press for aggressive diplomatic steps without pushing for military action. These groups have lavishly praised the Bush administration in recent days, after the U.S. Treasury Department banned an Iranian bank from doing business with American entities.
Bank Sepah, a state-owned bank, “is the financial linchpin of Iran’s missile-procurement network and has actively assisted Iran’s pursuit of missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction,” Stuart Levey, the department’s undersecretary for terrorism, said in a statement Tuesday, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Vice Premier Shimon Peres have recently made public remarks hinting at possible military retaliation against Iran if it attacks Israel. Both leaders have also gone further than their predecessors in confirming that Israel has a nuclear arsenal at its disposal.
Clark made his alleged remarks to liberal blogger Arianna Huffington in response to a United Press International column by Arnaud de Borchgrave. The column described the efforts of Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud — to compare Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler, and the current geopolitical situation to pre-World War II Europe. The article quotes Netanyahu’s call to “immediately launch an intense, international, public relations front first and foremost on the U.S. The goal being to encourage President Bush to live up to specific pledges he would not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu has positioned himself in recent months as a leading voice outside Israel, calling the world’s attention to the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Though as leader of the opposition he does not speak for the government, Israeli sources have said in recent weeks that Netanyahu’s approach is in line with the strategy of the Olmert government.
Huffington quoted Clark as saying that the idea of bombing Iran before exhausting diplomatic avenues was “outrageous.” According to Huffington, she then asked Clark what made him so sure that the United States is headed in the direction of attacking Iran, and he replied: “You just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided, but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.”
The phrase “New York money people” struck unpleasant chords with many pro-Israel activists. They interpreted it as referring to the Jewish community, which is known for its significant financial donations to political candidates.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, spoke to Clark shortly after the former general made his remarks. “He is a friend of Israel and is not an antisemite,” Foxman told the Forward, “but some of the things he said are very, very unfortunate.”
Foxman argued that while he does not accuse Clark of believing in conspiracy theories that paint the Jews and Israel as pushing the United States into war, the former general “fueled the flames and gave credibility to these theories.”
In his phone conversation with Foxman, Clark stressed that his remarks were not directed at the American Jews.
Last Tuesday, Clark sent Foxman a letter attempting to clarify his remarks. “I will not tolerate antisemitic conspiracy webs to permeate the honest debate Americans must have about how best to confront Iran,” Clark wrote.
In the letter, he also emphasized the need to engage in dialogue with Iran before turning to military options. “It has been my experience,” Clark wrote, “that diplomacy has always been America’s most effective tool and that force should be used only as a last resort.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition described Clark’s alleged comments as “blatantly antisemitic” and claimed that they were part of a larger trend of antisemitism seeping into mainstream Democratic political discourse. “Wesley Clark owes American Jews an apology,” said the RJC’s executive director, Matthew Brooks.
Though Clark has yet to announce his intentions, he is considered one of the possible Democratic candidates for presidency. In the 2004 campaign, Clark dropped out of the race in the early stages. During the campaign, Clark made several references to his Jewish family background, noting that though he was not aware of it until adulthood, he was proud of his heritage. Clark’s biological father, Benjamin Kanne, who died when Clark was 4, was Jewish. Clark, a Baptist, grew up in Little Rock, Ark., with his Christian mother and adoptive father.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.