Israel's Looming Catastrophe
For the past three decades, Israel has charted a course that invites its own destruction by relying on two risky propositions: first, that it could extend its security perimeter beyond the reach of a devastating missile attack, and second, that it could permanently control the political debate inside its crucial ally, the United States.
Israel’s current assault on Gaza is only the latest manifestation of this dangerous strategy, but – whether or not Israel succeeds in its stated goal of stopping the launching of short-range Hamas rockets – the more troubling writing for Israel remains on the wall.
If Israel continues to engender hatred across the Muslim world – and thus feeds the growth of Islamic extremism – eventually some radical government or group will get hold of a missile or some other means of delivering a payload against Tel Aviv that would wreak mass devastation.
In that event, Israel would almost surely turn to its sophisticated nuclear arsenal and launch a massive retaliatory strike. But to what end? Whatever counter-devastation could be delivered, it would not solve the strategic dilemma facing Israel.
Indeed, retaliation would likely make matters worse by engendering even a stronger determination among Muslims to eliminate whatever would be left of Israel. The situation might even be beyond the military power of the United States to set right.
Yet, this Israeli conundrum is not discussed inside the United States, where – for the past three decades – American neocons have led a powerful propaganda apparatus that demonizes any public figure who dares question hard-line Israeli strategy.
Even Americans with strong affection for Israel are denounced as “anti-Semites” or “pro-terrorist” if they challenge the Israel-is-always-right conventional wisdom that dominates modern Washington, where Democrats and Republicans alike line up to pander to the annual American-Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.
Former President Jimmy Carter, for instance, has become almost a political pariah although he arguably did more than any U.S. official to advance Israel’s security by negotiating the Camp David accords in 1978.
However, it was that event – the agreement between Israel and Egypt, returning the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a lasting peace commitment – that marked the strategic turning point for both Israel and the United States.
Though Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the peace deal, he was furious over the pressure Carter put on him.
Begin – who had led a Zionist terrorist group before Israel’s independence in 1948 and founded the right-wing Likud Party in 1973 – decided he must take steps to prevent Carter from pushing for a broader Israel-Arab peace deal in a potential second term.
Begin’s views were described by Israeli intelligence and foreign affairs official David Kimche in his 1991 book, The Last Option. Kimche wrote that Begin’s government believed that Carter was overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was conspiring to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
“Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington,” Kimche wrote. “They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Kimche continued, “This plan – prepared behind Israel’s back and without her knowledge – must rank as a unique attempt in United States’s diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation.”
Begin particularly dreaded the prospect of a second Carter presidential term.
“Unbeknownst to the Israeli negotiators, the Egyptians held an ace up their sleeves, and they were waiting to play it,” Kimche wrote. “The card was President Carter’s tacit agreement that after the American presidential elections in November 1980, when Carter expected to be re-elected for a second term, he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.”
Begin’s fear of Carter’s reelection – combined with alarm over Carter's perceived bungling in Iran where Islamic extremists took power in 1979 – set the stage for secret collaboration between Begin and the Republican presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, according to another Israeli intelligence official, Ari Ben-Menashe.
In his 1992 memoir, Profits of War, Ben-Menashe said the view of Begin and other Likud leaders was one of contempt for Carter.
“Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,” Ben-Menashe wrote. “As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel’s back.”
Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel as a teen-ager, became part of a secret Israeli program to reestablish its intelligence network in Iran after it had been decimated by the Islamic revolution.
Ben-Menashe wrote that Begin authorized shipments to Iran of small arms and some spare parts, via South Africa, as early as September 1979. In November of that year, events in Iran took another troubling turn when Islamic radicals seized the U.S. Embassy and took 52 Americans hostage, prompting a U.S. trade embargo.
Carter Catches On
By April 1980, however, Carter had learned about the covert Israeli shipments, which included 300 tires for Iran’s U.S.-supplied jet fighters. That prompted an angry complaint from Carter to Begin.
“There had been a rather tense discussion between President Carter and Prime Minister Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear that the Israelis had to stop that, and that we knew that they were doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the American people,” Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell told me.
“And it stopped,” Powell said. At least, it stopped temporarily.
Questioned by congressional investigators a dozen years later, Carter said he felt that by April 1980, “Israel cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a congressional investigation in 1992.
Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”
Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski also recognized the Israeli hostility. Brzezinski said the Carter White House was well aware that the Begin government had “an obvious preference for a Reagan victory.”
Extensive evidence now exists, too, that Begin’s preference for a Reagan victory led Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact Iranian leaders behind Carter’s back and delay release of the 52 American hostages until after Reagan defeated Carter in November 1980.
In his book and in sworn testimony about this so-called “October Surprise” controversy, Ben-Menashe asserted that then-vice presidential candidate George H.W. Bush personally participated in a key meeting in October 1980 in Paris. Bush denied that claim at two press conferences in 1992 but was never questioned under oath in any formal government investigation.
Since then, additional evidence has emerged linking the senior Bush to the clandestine Republican contacts with Iran during the 1980 campaign. Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean said he was informed by a well-placed Republican Party source in mid-October 1980 that Bush was heading to Paris for a meeting with Iranians about the hostage crisis.
David Andelman, a former New York Times correspondent who was assisting French intelligence chief Alexandre deMarenches on his memoir, said deMarenches described arranging meetings between Republicans and Iranians in Paris but insisted that be left out of the book for fear it would hurt his friend, George H.W. Bush.
After checking its intelligence files at the request of the U.S. Congress, the Russian government submitted an extraordinary report in January 1993 that identified the senior George Bush as one of several Republicans who negotiated with the Iranians in Paris during the 1980 campaign.
The congressional task force that requested the Russian report as part of its “October Surprise” investigation in 1992 never made the report public or even disclosed its existence.
I discovered the Russian document in a storage box left behind by the task force, which – by the time the Russian report arrived – had already decided to “debunk” the allegations of a Republican-Iranian hostage deal. The task force cleared Bush without ever questioning him.
In 1993, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who followed Begin to power in Israel, became another voice endorsing the allegations of a Republican-Iranian “October Surprise” deal back in 1980.
When asked in an interview whether there had been a Republican “October Surprise” operation, Shamir responded, “Of course, it was.” [For details on this mystery, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The 52 American hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, just as Ronald Reagan was beginning his inaugural address.
Though the allegations of a Republican-Iranian deal have remained in dispute, investigations into the controversy confirmed that Israel did resume military shipments to Iran in 1981 with the knowledge of Reagan-Bush officials who permitted the secret deliveries to go forward.
By the mid-1980s, the Reagan-Bush administration was playing both sides of the Iran-Iraq war, funneling financial and some military support to Iraq while also selling missiles to Iran, both through third countries such as Israel and directly from U.S. stockpiles.
Rise of the Neoconservatives
The election of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1980 also coincided with the emergence of a political movement known as neoconservatism.
Many neoconservatives had been liberals or even leftists but broke with the Democratic Party in the 1970s to favor a more aggressive policy toward the Soviet Union. The neoconservatives also wanted a more staunchly pro-Israeli position in the Middle East.
The Reagan-Bush administration rewarded the neocons for their support in the 1980 campaign with their first taste of executive power, giving them credentials that would prove crucial more than two decades later in their ability to push through the Iraq War.
Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz became assistant secretaries of state in the Reagan-Bush administration. Abrams now handles Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, and Wolfowitz was an architect of the Iraq policy as deputy secretary of defense. One of Wolfowitz’s protégés from the Reagan-Bush era, I. Lewis Libby Jr., became Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and a leading hawk on Iraq.
Another key neocon -- and Iraq policy architect -- was Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan. Perle’s former counsel was Douglas Feith, who returned as under secretary of defense for policy under George W. Bush and strongly promoted the invasion of Iraq.
Besides bringing intellectual firepower to the Reagan-Bush team, the neocons tapped into a powerful right-wing media apparatus that began to take shape in the late 1970s and pushed propaganda that advocated a more aggressive U.S. approach toward Israel’s “terrorist” adversaries in the Middle East.
Over the ensuing three decades, the neocons – and their right-wing Republican allies – came to dominate the Washington news media, especially on Middle East policy. Critics of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians were routinely denounced as “anti-Semites” and found little space on the major editorial pages to argue their positions.
Once the neocons returned to power under George W. Bush (and especially after the 9/11 attacks), the space for any debate shrank further, with anyone who questioned hard-line policies toward Iraq or Israel’s other Muslim enemies called “soft on terror.”
With debate suppressed, the neocons pushed for the invasion of Iraq almost without opposition. Though the war was pitched as necessary to protect the American people from Iraq’s supposed stockpiles of WMD, the invasion was viewed by many neocons as necessary to protect Israel’s long-term security.
The idea was that by transforming Iraq into a permanent base for the American military, U.S. power could be projected throughout the Middle East, forcing “regime change” in Iran and Syria and undermining other groups threatening Israel, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
The neocons saw the U.S. military in Iraq as the guarantors against any long-range assault on Israel. In other words, if Israel couldn’t reach some of those distant threats, the United States could.
The neocons also assumed that their tough-talking ways – especially President Bush’s then-popular swagger – would keep the American people in line with Washington’s Israel-is-always-right consensus.
President Bush’s strategic defeat in Iraq – defined by the new “status-of-forces agreement” that prohibits permanent U.S. bases and insists on a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011 – marks a major turning point in the Middle East.
Plus, the American neocons have been severely damaged domestically by their overreach in Iraq. Though they remain influential – especially inside the national press corps with control of the Washington Post’s editorial pages and other influential media outlets – the neocons are increasingly despised by the broad American public.
One of their chief advocates, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, went down to decisive defeat on Nov. 4, 2008, to a political newcomer in Barack Obama, despite right-wing and neocon smear campaigns emphasizing his middle name “Hussein” and claiming that he is a secret Muslim who would be sworn in using a Koran.
Though Obama has given the neocons some hope by handing the State Department to the staunchly pro-Israel Hillary Clinton and by keeping on Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the neocons will probably never reclaim the kind of sweeping influence they had during George W. Bush's presidency.
These new facts-on-the-ground – both in the Middle East and in Washington – add to the imperative for the Israeli people to reassess the three-decade strategy of balking at reconciliation with their Arab neighbors and counting on the neocon dominance of the U.S. political debates.
Israeli leaders might want to do whatever they can to turn back the clock to the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter showed a possible route to long-term security for Israel – by making respectful peace deals with its Arab neighbors.
Rather than trying to bomb and kill their way to security, Israeli leaders might want to consider a new strategy that steps away from endless confrontation with Arab enemies and instead seeks to integrate Israel into the economic life of the Middle East, as a center of science, technology, industry and finance.
Surely, this approach would not be easy. Given the past three decades of tit-for-tat atrocities, there would be extremists on both sides who would commit additional outrages to derail any progress.
It would have been much easier if Menachem Begin and his successors had understood that some of their greatest American friends were those – like Jimmy Carter – who recognized legitimate interests on both sides of the conflict, rather than those – like George W. Bush – who embraced the most extreme neoconservative positions.
So, whatever the outcome of Israel’s Gaza offensive, it cannot disguise how untenable Israel’s long-term position has become.
Even if Hamas’s little short-range missiles can be silenced for the time-being, the hatreds will continue to fester. The Arab Street will turn, increasingly, against authoritarian Arab leaders in countries such as Egypt and Jordan who have taken the most moderate positions regarding Israel’s right to exist.
And beyond Israel’s immediate neighbors – assuming those mutual hatreds are not defused – Muslim extremists will eventually get hold of a weapon of mass destruction, possibly in Pakistan if its current fragile civilian government falls. At some point, someone will have a missile or some other means of delivering a powerful weapon against Israel.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Bush and his neocon advisers may have imagined themselves ensuring security for Israel by taking aggressive action against its regional adversaries but have instead worsened Israel’s predicament. Now, the neocons find themselves widely discredited inside the U.S. political process.
It is this combination of realities – Bush’s failed adventurism in the Middle East and the decline of the neoncons at home – that could become the impetus for a new and serious peace initiative in the Middle East, as the best hope for Israel’s success and survival.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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