Jewish Journal

Jews Quiet on New Iraq War

by James D. Besser

Posted on Aug. 15, 2002 at 8:00 pm

A recent Internet posting on hundreds of discussion forums accused American Jews of leading the drumbeat for a new war against Iraq.

Beyond its crude anti-Semitism, the message was just plain wrong; Jewish groups have been all but invisible as the Bush administration engages in public handwringing over the next phase in its sputtering war against terrorism.

Behind the scenes, there is general support for the broad goal of toppling Saddam Hussein, but Jewish leaders are not using their influence to press for aggressive American action.

The reasons are varied, starting with the fact that this administration seems to recognize the genuine threat to U.S. interests and Mideast stability posed by the Iraqi strongman -- despite continuing uncertainty about how to proceed.

"If the Jewish community has been quiet, it may reflect the fact that there is no particular Jewish angle to a policy matter with national and global implications," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "But I have very little doubt that if and when the president goes ahead with military action, the vast majority of American Jews will stand behind him and our country."

But the low-profile Jewish response also reflects a strain of skepticism; some Jewish leaders are simply not convinced President George W. Bush is committed to the kind of all-out effort it will take to depose Hussein and end his quest for weapons of mass destruction.

The skeptics point to a mounting blizzard of contradictory leaks and official pronouncements from the administration, pointing to deep internal divisions over how to proceed.

President Bush has ratcheted up his warnings to Hussein in recent days, and some administration officials have leaked the news that an attack could be imminent, but others are just as busy arguing that it might be better to wait Hussein out.

War plans are leaked in rapid succession by competing factions and discussed openly in the media. That may be clever disinformation intended to unsettle the Iraqi leader -- but it adds to the impression of policy disarray, and it may undermine the support the president needs to wage a difficult, sustained war.

The president's own political people are quietly making the case that anything short of a swift, stunning military victory would be a big liability for the president's party going into critical congressional elections this fall.

Watching that disarray, some Jewish leaders are worried: will the administration be able to settle on a comprehensive, realistic plan to topple Hussein and build a new Iraq without producing a terrible new crisis for Israel? Can the president win the first critical battle -- the internal fight over what to do, and when? If he does, will he stay the course, even if the battle against Iraq gets messy?

"There are two poles at work in our community," said Robert O. Freedman, a leading Mideast expert. "There are many who quietly agree with the neo-conservatives in the administration that once you take care of Iraq, it will be a lot easier to solve the Arab-Israeli crisis."

At the same time, he said, many Jewish leaders "fear that if the United States gets bogged down in a war against Iraq, it will inflame Arab rage at both the United States and Israel, and will make things even worse for Israel than they are now."

The result, he said, is that while few Jewish leaders oppose the goal of toppling Hussein, there are strong concerns that the administration may not have a solid plan for carrying it out.

Israeli officials say they're ready to deal with new Iraqi attacks that are likely to follow the start of any U.S. offensive.

Last week, the government announced it would build a second Arrow missile battery to defend the middle of the country against incoming missiles; this week, there were reports that the Sharon government has notified Washington it will respond forcefully to new Iraqi attacks -- unlike 1991, when Israel held back in the face of strong U.S. pressure.

But the short-term risks will be worth taking only if Washington finishes the job, and goes on to build a stable, moderate Iraq.

"I think the administration really is committed to doing that, " said Mideast analyst Daniel Pipes. "If there is a military campaign against Iraq, I believe it will be conclusive; I don't think there's a chance it will end as it did 11 years ago."

But he concedes that the effort will "be difficult."

A longtime pro-Israel lobbyist said that "the administration has a solid understanding that the Iraqi threat is nearing critical mass. But, there is a lot of evidence they just can't settle on a course of action. That increases anxiety that Israel could get left holding the bag."

And the administration has done little to prepare the American people for what could be a much less antiseptic and more protracted war than the one 11 years ago, the lobbyist said.

Thus, the Jewish silence as the clamor over Iraq resonates over Washington. Most Jewish leaders believe the administration is heading in the right direction, but many worry that Israel could suffer the consequences if the administration doesn't complete the journey.

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