Israel and the Iraq war

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt includes a section entitled “Israel and the Iraq War” (pp. 30-31). There they seek to establish that Israel’s leaders, intelligence agencies, and public opinion enthusiastically supported a war to remove Saddam. Israel exerted “pressure” on the United States, fed Washington “alarming reports” on Iraq’s WMD capabilities, and beat the war drums in the media. Israelis were “so gung-ho for war that their allies in America told them to damp down their hawkish rhetoric, lest it look like the war was for Israel.” Israel thus became “a critical element” in pushing the United States to war.

Is this a full and accurate representation of what actually transpired? Let’s consider the full range of evidence—including that hidden away in such obscure sources as the Washington Post, the New York Times and page one of the Los Angeles Times.

In October 2002, analyst Barry Rubin wrote this in the Jerusalem Post: “If you told Israeli leaders and analysts two years ago that the U.S. would be on the verge of attacking Iraq today, they would have been astonished and confused. The dominant perception across the political spectrum was that Iraq was not a serious threat.” In fact, right through the 1990s, Israel showed little interest in the dossier some Americans busily compiled against Saddam. Laurie Mylroie, who argued that Saddam sponsored every act of terror everywhere, and possessed every kind of WMD, got little traction in Israel, and it frustrated her to no end:

Many Israelis [wrote Mylroie in 1998] refuse to accept and incorporate, even now, the information that suggests the US did not win the [1991 Kuwait] war and Saddam remains very dangerous. A few do—like Ehud Ya’ari/Ze’ev Schiff/Gerald Steinberg, Bar Ilan University/the editors of the Jerusalem Post. But most do not and their work is so systematically distorted that it is fit for little more than wrapping fish.

Mylroie thought Israel far too fixated on Iran, and called its unwillingness to prioritize Iraq “a strategic intelligence failure…not less than the strategic intelligence failure that preceded the Yom Kippur War.”

In November 2001, Seymour Hersh (in an article entitled “The Iran Game”) reported Israel’s concern that the post-9/11 “war on terror” had diverted U.S. attention from Iran, even as Iran accelerated its nuclear program. Hersh wrote that “even Israel’s most skeptical critics in the American intelligence community—and there are many—now acknowledge that there is a serious problem.” But the Bush administration put Israel off with assurances that it would get to Iran later. Hersh:

The Bush Administration continues to concentrate on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “It’s more important to deal with Iraq than with Iran, because there’s nothing going on in Iraq that’s going to get better,” a senior Administration strategist told me. “In Iran, the people are openly defying the government. There’s some hope that Iran will get better. But there’s nothing in Iraq that gives you any hope, because Saddam rules so ruthlessly. What will we do if he provides anthrax to four guys in Al Qaeda?” He said, “If Iraq is out of the picture, we will concentrate on Iran in an entirely different way.”

In February 2002, ahead of a visit by Ariel Sharon to Washington, the Washington Post carried a story by Alan Sipress under the headline: “Israel Emphasizes Iranian Threat.”

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives today for a White House visit, Israeli officials are redoubling efforts to warn the Bush administration that Iran poses a greater threat than the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

A series of Israeli leaders have carried that message to Washington recently in the hope of influencing a debate that has centered not on Iran but on whether to pursue the overthrow of the Iraqi government.

The article went on to quote Israeli defense minister Fouad Ben-Eliezer: “Today, everybody is busy with Iraq. Iraq is a problem…. But you should understand, if you ask me, today Iran is more dangerous than Iraq.” The article added: “Though Israeli officials have few kind words for Saddam Hussein, they see him posing less of a threat than Iran after more than a decade of U.N. sanctions and international isolation.”

But the wheels of war in Washington continued to grind through spring and summer, and as they did, allies of the United States jumped on board. Even so, Israel still wasn’t entirely on the same page as the Bush administration. On October 6, 2002, James Bennet filed a story from Jerusalem that ran the next day under this headline: “Sharon Tells Cabinet to Keep Quiet on U.S. Plans” for Iraq. Bennet reported that Sharon had instructed his ministers to stop talking about Iraq, and then summarized the opinions of the military echelon:

Even as Mr. Bush has sought in recent days to play up the imminence and potency of the Iraqi threat, some of Israel’s top security officials have played both down.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s chief of staff, was quoted in the newspaper Maariv today as telling a trade group in a speech over the weekend, “I’m not losing any sleep over the Iraqi threat.” The reason, he said, was that the military strength of Israel and Iraq had diverged so sharply in the last decade.

Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash, disputed contentions that Iraq was 18 months away from nuclear capability. In an interview on Saturday with Israeli television, he said army intelligence had concluded that Iraq’s time frame was more like four years, and he said Iran’s nuclear threat was as great as Iraq’s.

General Farkash also said Iraq had grown militarily weaker since the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and had not deployed any missiles that could strike Israel.

On October 16, 2002, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story by its Israel correspondent, Barbara Demick, under this headline: “Not All Israelis Welcome Prospect of War With Iraq.”

A muted debate is underway here over whether a U.S.-led war against Israel’s archenemy Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a good idea.

While it is widely assumed that Israelis are gloating over the prospect of Hussein getting his comeuppance after the Persian Gulf War, when 39 Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Israel, the reality is far more complex and the reactions more ambivalent.

No doubt Israelis more than almost anyone would prefer a Middle East without Hussein, but some question whether the status quo of a weakened and contained Iraq isn’t better than a war that could further inflame anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world.

Demick also quoted Generals Yaalon and Farkash, adding that “Israeli military specialists have been debating for several years whether Iraq or Iran poses more of a threat. Most specialists believe it is Iran, because it is richer and has been more directly implicated in international terrorism.” And she also had an explanation for the muted tone of the debate: “Those most enthusiastic about Washington’s campaign dread any suggestion that Israel is egging on the U.S. And those with misgivings are loath to say anything that might embarrass Israel’s most steadfast ally.”

Incredibly, Mearsheimer and Walt, in their section on “Israel and the Iraq War,” don’t cite Mylroie, or the articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. (The Washington Post piece is cited later, but in the wrong context. Mearsheimer and Walt chronologically misplace Ben-Eliezer’s remark, about Iran being more dangerous than Iraq. They date it to “one month before the Iraq war”—in other words, in the context of the debate over what should be done after Iraq. In fact, Ben-Eliezer made the statement one year and one month before the Iraq war, in the context of the debate about whether to do Iraq at all.)

In their analysis of Israeli public opinion, Mearsheimer and Walt also skip over evidence. They quote a September 2002 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Benjamin Netanyahu (then on the political sidelines) in which he made this assertion: “I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis in supporting a pre-emptive strike against Saddam’s regime.” Mearsheimer and Walt:

As Netanyahu suggests, the desire for war was not confined to Israel’s leaders. Apart from Kuwait, which Saddam conquered in 1990, Israel was the only country in the world where both the politicians and the public enthusiastically favored war.

They then support this claim in a footnote, citing a February 2003 poll done by the Steinmatz Center at Tel Aviv University. It showed that 77.5 percent of Israeli Jews favored a U.S. campaign against Iraq.

But that wasn’t the only poll taken at the time. Mearsheimer and Walt could have consulted a more Iraq-specific poll cited by Gideon Levy, the far-left Haaretz columnist who opposed the war, and whom they quote as an authority on the hawkish mood of Israel’s leaders. In fact, Levy held that while Israel’s leaders favored a war, Israel’s public didn’t. Levy cited an opinion poll done by the Dialogue Institute for Haaretz and published in the paper on February 13, 2003:

It turns out that nearly half of Israelis are against an immediate war—20.4 percent think the U.S. should refrain completely from attacking, and another 23.4 percent are in favor of an attack only if all the inspection and mediation efforts fail. Figures in America are amazingly similar.

This hardly conforms to Mearsheimer and Walt’s assertion that “the [Israeli] public enthusiastically favored war.” Yet they fail to mention this major public opinion poll on the subject of their research, conducted for Haaretz—a newspaper cited almost ninety times in their footnotes. Instead they trot out a more convenient poll, and allow the argument to be clinched by Netanyahu. “I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis,” he is quoted as claiming. Now when did he last do that?

What does the full evidence suggest? That the Israeli posture on the Iraq war was far more complex than Mearsheimer and Walt allow or even imagine. Did two former Israeli prime ministers, Barak and Netanyahu, write tough-guy op-eds in favor of striking Iraq? They did. Did ex-Mossad head Efraim Halevy give a starry-eyed speech on the new Middle East that would emerge after Saddam fell? He did. Did Israeli intelligence generate some overwrought assessments of Iraq? It did. But Israel also had a debate, one that’s gone missing in the Mearsheimer-Walt version.

Daniel Levy, an Israeli promoter of the so-called “Geneva Initiative,” grabbed some attention by welcoming the Mearsheimer-Walt paper. He can hardly be described as hostile to their enterprise. But in a radio interview, he said this:

I’ll give you an Israeli angle on this which may surprise some people and be interesting…. Many Israelis felt that engaging in a war with Iraq was the right thing to do and was good for Israeli security. However, there was a debate, it didn’t surface greatly but it was very much taking place within the Israeli security establishment and it said the following: the strategic threat is Iran, not Iraq. We may limit and actually undermine what we can do in Iran if we go for what some people have called the wrong war. Now those voices may not have been heard very publicly but they were heard inside the security establishment.

As we’ve seen, the Israelis also engaged the Americans in some measure of debate, and evidence for it even surfaced in the mainstream media. In a post-war analysis, Israeli analyst (and former general) Shlomo Brom described the disagreement—and what ended it (emphasis mine):

The ongoing dialogues between various levels of the Israeli and American governments over the last decade revealed disagreements between the two countries concerning the relative weight of the various threats in the Middle East. The United States was wont to emphasize the Iraqi threat, while Israel tended to express its understanding that the Iraqi threat was contained and under control, and it was the Iranian threat that loomed as far more serious. Once the Bush administration decided to take action against Iraq, it was more difficult for Israel to maintain its position that dealing with Iraq was not the highest priority, especially when it was obvious that the war would serve Israel’s interests. Considering the circumstances, it would therefore be difficult to expect the Israeli government to express its doubts—if any—about Iraq’s capabilities.

In fact, some doubts continued to leak into statements by Israel’s top generals. But once Israel’s leaders realized that the Bush administration was dead serious about ousting Saddam, they clambered onto the bandwagon. Israeli politicans joined the chorus, and the Israeli security establishment fell in line.

Mearsheimer and Walt thus would seem to have it exactly wrong. It wasn’t Israel that persuaded the Bush administration of the war’s necessity, but vice versa: the administration persuaded and then enlisted Israel. It did so, in considerable measure, by implying that the United States would be better positioned to deal with Iran once it had disposed of Saddam.

In the end, Israel acquiesced in the U.S. threat perception, which didn’t align with its own. Influential Israelis also publicly helped to bolster the arguments made by the Bush administration. As in 1990-91, Israel again prepared to do something totally foreign to it: to absorb an Iraqi strike, perhaps with non-conventional weapons, while forgoing retaliation. And during the war, Israel showed exceptional restraint toward the Palestinians. Not for a moment did it contemplate mass expulsion of Palestinians under the cover of war in Iraq—something Mearsheimer, in a display of true ignorance, thought quite possible at the time.

In short, Israel performed as an ideal ally and perfect client. Over the decades, this is precisely how Israel has built its credibility in Washington and across America—not through the machinations of the “Lobby.”