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Who Is Israel's Friend?

By Robert Parry
August 1, 2006

Many supporters of Israel feel that they are showing solidarity with the Jewish state when they back whatever the Israeli government does, much as many Americans believe they are being patriotic when they back whatever George W. Bush decides.

The opposite side of that coin is that people who criticize actions by the Israeli government often are deemed “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic,” just as Americans who question Bush’s judgments are called “un-American” or “treasonous.”

But the reality is quite different. Endorsing a misguided policy doesn’t make Israel safer nor does it advance the interests of the United States. Indeed, there is a powerful argument that the violent course of action now being pursued by Tel Aviv and Washington will prove disastrous to both countries.

Waging war may satisfy short-term desires for revenge or relieve a few fears about the future, but the violence is taking the two nations in a far more dangerous direction, possibly past a point of no return. If the course is maintained much longer, endless war and widespread devastation may become inevitable.

Plus, Israel cannot escape one overpowering reality: it can never build buffer zones wide enough to protect itself from possible rocket attacks, anymore than the United States can prevent some future 9/11 atrocity by invading Arab countries and bombing every suspected “terrorist” target.

Even if Israel succeeds in forcing Hezbollah guerrillas several kilometers away from Israel’s northern border, there will always be longer-range rockets and angrier militants eager to fire them. Eventually, Israel would need to extend this “buffer zone” to Iran if it wants some guarantee of safety.

But that’s as impossible for Israel as the American neoconservative dream was about imposing “regime change” on every government in the Middle East that Bush saw as a potential threat. When that scheme was tried in Iraq, it created what retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom called the “greatest strategic disaster in United States history.”

So, it may be satisfying for Newt Gingrich and other political theorists to muse about fighting “World War III” and crushing Islamic radicalism once and for all. But the only realistic hope for any long-term security is to address the genuine concerns of Muslims, show true generosity toward the Palestinians in particular, and take some risks for peace.

Dashing Hope

Arguably, Israel would have improved its security a great deal more if it had stayed focused on achieving a settlement of the Palestinian issue rather than retaliating for the capture of three Israeli soldiers, one in Gaza and two in Lebanon.

The explosion in violence, including hundreds of civilian deaths, set back progress that had been achieved by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in getting Hamas to agree to a plan that implicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.

On June 27, Abbas coaxed the more radical Hamas, which controls the Palestinian parliament, into endorsing a document that called for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan had been drawn up by leading Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, with an expected referendum in late July.

But the peace proposal drowned under the wave of new violence. Reacting to the capture of its soldiers, Israel’s high-tech military wreaked havoc on Gaza and then earned international condemnation for inflicting hundreds of civilian deaths in Lebanon.

Much of what happened appeared in the U.S. news media as simply Israel retaliating against provocations from Islamic militants. But, on another level, the events of July were not that spontaneous.

At a White House meeting on May 23, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Bush agreed on a strategy for escalating tensions in the Middle East with the goal of neutralizing Syria and forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The two leaders reportedly signed off on a timetable that made 2006 the year to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and 2007 the year to set new Israeli borders, either with the acquiescence of a more compliant Palestinian leadership or by Israel acting unilaterally.

Under the Bush-Olmert timetable, the Israeli government was less interested in winning immediate concessions from the Palestinians than it was in delivering powerful blows against Hamas and Hezbollah, which are supported by Syria and Iran.

As Israel attacked, the Bush administration provided diplomatic cover by resisting calls for a Lebanese cease-fire. Over the next few months, the United States intends to step up diplomatic, economic and, if necessary, military pressure on Iran.

Dissension

According to one Israeli source, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and other members of Olmert’s coalition who supported the prime minister because he campaigned as a peace candidate, were stunned by the escalations in Gaza and Lebanon, though they have refrained from speaking out while Israeli troops are in battle.

Some Israeli analysts also have privately expressed concern about the plan for Israel to dictate terms to the Palestinians on a border settlement once Olmert and Bush complete their confrontations with Syria and Iran.

These analysts feel that the resolution of the Palestinian issue must go beyond simply having Israel unilaterally redefine its borders and annex more Palestinian land. Instead, a settlement must include creation of an economically viable Palestinian state with some kind of tunnel or corridor connecting Gaza and the West Bank.

According to this thinking, Western generosity toward the Palestinian people would likely do more to defuse Arab animosity than anything else.

So, too, might honest admissions of mistakes. Israel has long demonstrated a skill in winning the propaganda battles against its Arab enemies, but that has been a mixed blessing because sometimes the ability to out-debate or out-maneuver an adversary constrains the moral incentive to do the right thing.

From an Arab point-of-view, Israel’s talent in presenting itself as always the underdog David facing the mighty Goliath is unjustified when one takes into account Israel’s extraordinary military prowess, backed by a fearsome nuclear arsenal and some of the world’s most sophisticated weapons systems from the United States.

To the Arabs, the Western embrace of Israel – especially by America – reveals an anti-Muslim bias, which fuels resentments that feed the violence and help extremist organizations recruit young Muslims for acts of terrorism.

Facing this conundrum, a logical – though difficult – course would be try to unwind the decades of hatred and distrust with the goal of building a future where the vast majority of Arabs see a financial and personal advantage in integrating with the wider world.

Without doubt, this approach would take time and confront many obstacles. It would also require patience and tolerance. At key junctures, Islamic extremists would surely commit outrages designed to provoke an overreaction either by Israel or the United States.

Clinton’s Approach

That happened in the 1990s when the Clinton administration made some progress in building bridges between the West and Islam. Al-Qaeda sought to disrupt these developments by launching attacks to goad the United States into a clumsy counterattack.

President Bill Clinton’s reactions, however, were targeted and limited; some Americans would say, ineffectual.

After Bush took office in 2001, al-Qaeda finally had its perfect foil. By mid-2001, the CIA was picking up al-Qaeda chatter about provoking Bush to charge headlong and headstrong into the Muslim world.

Over the weekend of July Fourth 2001, a well-placed U.S. intelligence source passed on a disturbing incident to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who later recounted the story in an interview with Alternet:

“The incident that had gotten everyone’s attention was a conversation between two members of al-Qaeda. And they had been talking to one another, supposedly expressing disappointment that the United States had not chosen to retaliate more seriously against what had happened to the [destroyer USS] Cole [which was bombed on Oct. 12, 2000].

“And one al-Qaeda operative was overheard saying to the other, ‘Don’t worry; we’re planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond.’”

The significance of Miller’s recollection was that more than two months before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA knew that al-Qaeda was planning a major attack with the intent of inciting a U.S. military reaction – or in this case, an overreaction.

The CIA tried to warn Bush about the threat on Aug. 6, 2001, with the hope that presidential action could energize government agencies and head off the attack. The CIA sent analysts to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to brief him and deliver a report entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”

Bush was not pleased by the intrusion. He glared at the CIA briefer and snapped, “All right, you’ve covered your ass,” according to Ron Suskind’s book, The One Percent Doctrine.

Then, putting the CIA’s warning in the back of his mind and ordering no special response, Bush returned to a vacation of fishing, clearing brush and working on a speech about stem-cell research.

Beyond Expectations

After Sept. 11, however, al-Qaeda got a U.S. reaction that may have been beyond even its wildest dreams. U.S. forces did dislodge al-Qaeda from its safe haven in Afghanistan, but then – on Bush’s orders – redirected focus on Iraq. U.S. intelligence agencies were aghast because they knew Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

The carnage from Bush’s invasion of Iraq further destabilized the Middle East, gave al-Qaeda a foothold in the center of the Arab world, and enhanced the influence of Iran’s Islamic regime because Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated government has close ties to the mullahs in Tehran.

So, when Bush was seeking a second term in 2004, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lent the U.S. President a hand by releasing a videotape on the Friday before the election. When bin Laden denounced Bush on television, Bush’s partisans spun the tirade into bin Laden’s “endorsement” of Democrat John Kerry.

In one national poll, Bush suddenly jumped six percentage points into the lead. But CIA analysts concluded that bin Laden was playing a double game, attacking Bush in order to keep him in office another four years.

“Certainly,” CIA deputy associate director for intelligence Jami Miscik told a senior meeting of CIA analysts, “he [bin Laden] would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”

As the CIA analysts reviewed this internal assessment, they grew troubled by its implications.

“An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote in The One Percent Doctrine. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “CIA: Osama Helped Bush in ’04.”]

Now in Olmert, Bush has a new Israeli ally who shares a taste for “shock and awe” military tactics. Olmert took over the government’s reins after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon collapsed with a stroke in January 2006.

Ironically, Sharon, who had been an architect of earlier hard-line Israeli strategies including the 1982 Lebanon invasion and putting Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands in the West Bank, had decided to move in a different direction, away from confrontation with the Palestinians.

Many Israelis voted for Olmert because they thought he would carry out Sharon’s vision. Instead, Olmert came to share Bush’s strategy of using military force to shatter the old political structures in the Middle East and replace them with institutions more amenable to U.S. and Israeli interests.

That strategy, which has foundered in Iraq, is now being tested in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. It may have future applications in Syria and Iran, too.

While this violence might be satisfying to Americans and Israelis eager to fight “World War III” or simply those who wish to inflict pain on Arabs, there is at least a reasonable argument that reliance on force won’t solve the region’s complex problems.

Indeed, there’s a very good chance that the bloodshed will just make everything a whole lot worse.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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