May 27, 2004
Danger Lurking in U.S.-Israel Linkage
Israel and the United States have more in common than ever as both nations fight the terror scourge. That's good news, but Jewish leaders would be wise not to get smug about it.
True, this growing commonality may lead to a new understanding in Washington of the difficult decisions Israeli leaders have had to make for years. But linkage also has some big potential downsides.
The war in Iraq could produce a sharp public backlash against U.S. involvement -- in that particular conflict and in a region that is hard on traditional American naivete. And that backlash could taint U.S.-Israel relations if the public links failed U.S. policies with Israel.
This is dangerous territory, because so many chronic Israel bashers have made a cottage industry of blaming pro-Israel forces for U.S. involvement in Iraq, from former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan to Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), who recently pointed the finger at a cabal of Jewish neocons he said wanted the war to help Israel.
That kind of linkage is inflammatory nonsense.
Polls show U.S. Jews were less supportive of the Iraq venture than Americans in general before last year's invasion, and that skepticism has remained constant since President Bush prematurely declared "mission accomplished." Almost no major Jewish groups expressed any public views on the war, and few privately lobbied in favor of it.
Still, there is a persistent perception -- last echoed by Hollings -- that a group of Jewish neoconservatives somehow manipulated a gullible administration into the war to serve Israel's interests. That kind of warped thinking could become more prevalent and more dangerous as the American people tire of the rising body count and the unending financial drain of the war.
A different kind of linkage is taking place, because of the obvious similarity between U.S. and Israeli policies in their respective wars against terror. The nightly television images tell a powerful story: U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing the same things Israeli troops have been doing for years in Gaza and the West Bank -- maintaining an occupation against an enraged population, inflicting unintended civilian casualties in bitter urban warfare and holding large numbers of terror suspects without trial.
That commonality will make it harder for the United States to criticize Israel for tactics the United States is employing in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what happens if U.S. public opinion turns sharply against the war?
Israelis can't afford the luxury of turning their backs on a terror threat that is an everyday part of their lives, but very few Americans, so far, have been affected by our confrontation with this menace. We could turn our backs on a fight we could come to loathe -- and on those who are still fighting it.
A backlash against the war isn't inevitable, but it will become increasingly likely if the United States cannot work out an effective transfer of power in June and if the current violence deepens. It could accelerate if the prison abuse scandal intensifies -- a scandal that seems to suggest that Americans, too, can get sucked into the vicious irrationality of that part of the world.
And that backlash could rub off on Israel, increasingly seen as the United States' partner not just in the war on terror but in the controversial means used to wage it. While there is no antidote to such a backlash, Jewish leaders can work now to minimize it.
They can avoid gloating over the fact that the United States has adopted may Israeli tactics it previously criticized. That may feel good today, but it could come back to haunt the pro-Israel movement, if the Iraq venture continues to go sour.
They can continue to make it clear that whether Bush's decision to make Iraq the second battle in the war on terrorism was correct or not, it had nothing to do with a desire to protect Israel.
They can react sharply and with hard facts to those politicians who express their loathing for the war by blaming it on Israel, on pro-Israel organizations or on cabals of Jews, not on the president who was apparently determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein from day one of his administration.
Hollings' comments last week could have been a teaching opportunity for Jewish groups to remind reporters that Jews are just as divided about the war as Americans in general. Instead, Jewish groups, with the exception of the Anti-Defamation League, were mostly mute.
It's one thing to say this nation and Israel are involved in a common struggle against international terrorism; it's something quite different to say that the terror war somehow justifies all of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies.
The United States and Israel are partners in this global fight, but the leaders of both countries have linked other agendas to that war. That multiplies the possibility that the new linkage may ultimately undermine U.S.-Israel relations.