Is It Good for the Jews?
By BILL KELLER
Published: March 08, 2003
Two weeks ago, a group of senior intelligence officials in the Defense Department sat for an hour listening to a briefing by a writer who claims -- I am not making this up -- that messages encoded in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament provide clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. One of the officials told me that they had agreed to meet the writer, Michael Drosnin, author of a Nostradamus-style best seller, without understanding that he was promoting Biblical prophecy. Still, rather than shoo him away, they listened politely as he consumed several man-hours of valuable intelligence-crunching time. Apparently he has given similar briefings to top officials of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
Maybe we're all a little too desperate these days for a simple formula to explain how our safe world came unhinged. That, as much as anything, may explain one of the more enduring conspiracy theories of the moment, the notion that we are about to send a quarter of a million American soldiers to war for the sake of Israel.
This idea has received only fleeting attention in the mainstream discussion of our looming invasion of Iraq, and it would not deserve more except for three things: (1) The idea that this war is about Israel is persistent and more widely held than you may think. (2) It has interesting ripples in our domestic politics. (3) It has, like many dubious theories, sprouted from a seed of truth. Israel is part of the story. And why shouldn't it be?
The conspiracy theory appears in several variations, ranging from malignant to merely cynical, but it goes something like this: A cadre of pro-Zionist zealots within the Bush administration and among its media chorus (the ''amen corner,'' as the isolationist Pat Buchanan crudely called them last time we threatened Iraq) has long schemed to make the Middle East safer for Israel by uprooting the hostile regime of Saddam Hussein. They have finally succeeded, the theory goes, in pushing their agenda up to the desk of a gullible president.
Exhibit A for this plot is a document entitled ''A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,'' prepared in 1996 by a group of American defense thinkers for the hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. This study proposed an aggressive redirection of Israeli strategy, including a plan for ''removing Saddam Hussein from power.'' Three of the authors of the prescription -- Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser --are now prominent ''embeds'' in the Bush administration.
The ''Clean Break'' group, interestingly, did not call for an American conquest of Saddam. With President Bill Clinton in office, there was little hope of that. They proposed that Israel handle it together with Jordan and Turkey. Jordan's Hashemite dynasty would share the management of Iraq with the Shiites -- presumably leaving the fate of the poor Kurds in Turkish hands. As for America, the document proposed that Israel adopt a new policy of self-reliance, immediately declining economic aid and, eventually, military assistance. This was all a bit much, even for the ultranationalist Mr. Netanyahu.
A less conspiracy-minded observer might point out that the longstanding Bushite animosity toward Iraq is complex and hardly secret, and the fact that our interests coincide with Israel's does not mean that a Zionist fifth column has hijacked the president's brain. But that would not satisfy the yearning for a simple story.
Reinforcing this sinister narrative is the suspicion that the presidential mastermind Karl Rove designed the war as shameless pandering to Florida's Jewish voters and to the tens of millions of evangelical Christians who have taken up Israel as a passion. (Many evangelicals love Israel because in their Biblical end-of-days scenario, the gathering of Jews in the Holy Land is necessary for the Second Coming. Inconveniently for the Jews, the story calls for them to either abandon their beliefs or be exterminated in time for the great rapture.)
While the polls show that the attitudes of American Jews on a war with Iraq are not appreciably different from those of the general electorate, most of the big Jewish organizations and many donors (with the important exception of Hollywood donors) are backing war.
I don't for a second believe that Mr. Bush is marching to war to secure the votes of Palm Beach County. But Republican strategists do foresee -- and savor -- the fact that a victory in Iraq could give the president new inroads with a small but politically active and traditionally Democratic constituency.
''If the policy succeeds in the war and the peace,'' one Republican strategist said, ''then I think you'll see a further tectonic shift of Jewish political support, both in terms of money and votes, toward Bush. That's not why it's being done, but it will be a consequence if they're successful.''
Mr. Bush may also be enjoying the way the question of Israel and the Palestinians has sown strife within the antiwar ranks. Michael Lerner, editor of the leftist Jewish magazine Tikkun, says he was blackballed from speaking at an antiwar rally in San Francisco because some of the sponsors refused to have a ''pro-Israel'' speaker, an incident that prompted considerable gloating among hawks.
You hear lowbrow versions of the it's-really-about-Israel theory at protest rallies, especially in Europe, where selective sympathy for the Palestinians runs high. You can hear more sophisticated versions, sometimes whispered or oblique, among scholars, op-ed writers and politicians. They speak of the ''Israel-centric'' war on terror or ''Sharon's war.''
Making the world safer for us -- defusing terrorism and beginning to reform a region that is a source of toxic hostility to what we stand for -- happens to make the world safer for Israel as well. But the idea that Israel's interests are driving one of the most momentous shifts in America's foreign policy is simple-minded and offensive. (There is also a simple-minded and offensive flip side, which holds that opposition to the war is heavily fueled by anti-Semitism -- another sweeping slander with a grain of truth in it.)
What is demonstrably true is that Israelis believe that the war in Iraq is -- to use a phrase that is a staple of Jewish satire -- good for the Jews. Even though Israel is a likely target of Iraqi reprisals when war breaks out, it is the only country I know of where polls show overwhelming support for an invasion to oust Saddam, preferably sooner.
The administration prefers not to advertise Israel alongside Bulgaria and Spain on its marquee of allied supporters, for the same reason it has gone to tremendous lengths to keep Israel out of the coming war. No one wants to feed the dangerous idea that this is, as the jihad propagandists claim, a war of Americans and Zionists against Arabs and Islam.
There are obvious reasons that Israelis would like to rid the region of a man who trains terrorists and pays blood money to suicide bombers' families. But the deeper explanation, says Stephen Cohen, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, is profound despair over the bloody dead end in which Israeli-Palestinian politics sit. A conquest of Iraq offers the prospect that the United States will take the region in hand. It is, to many Israelis, the only hope of change for the better.
In his speech last week to the American Enterprise Institute, President Bush for the first time seemed to embrace this thankless responsibility. He declared that success in Iraq could break the impasse and move Israel and the Palestinians toward the obvious two-state solution. He underscored this as ''my personal commitment.''
The speech may have been a sop to European opinion, but a successful war would offer Mr. Bush a precious opportunity. A lot of people wish that he had engaged the Palestinian question intensively and earlier, if only to gain some credibility with the Arabs prior to disarming Saddam. But later would still be better than never.
The question is, What will Mr. Bush make of this moment? If the U.S. manages to make a more benign Iraq -- and perhaps a chastened Syria -- the Israelis could decide to dig in their heels: Our friend Mr. Bush is here, he's on our side; we can now sit tight, wait for the Palestinians to read the handwriting on the walls of Baghdad and maybe offer them half a state.
Or the Americans could seize the opportunity to say to Ariel Sharon, who has shown no prior gift for strategic statesmanship: ''We are here now -- you know we won't let you down. It's time to roll back the settlements and close a deal.''
Will Mr. Bush choose to lead on this? We know now that the man isn't afraid of a big gamble. But we also know that he likes his stories black and white, and no amount of conquest will make the Middle East a simple plot.