Magazine article The American Prospect

The Israel Deal: Conventional Wisdom: Israel Wanted the Iraq War. Reality: When America Is Overextended Militarily, U.S. Support for Israel Is Inevitably Weakened

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Israel Deal: Conventional Wisdom: Israel Wanted the Iraq War. Reality: When America Is Overextended Militarily, U.S. Support for Israel Is Inevitably Weakened

Article excerpt

IRAQ, IT'S TRUE, ISN'T PRECISELY Vietnam: Vietnam is hellishly hot and humid, whereas Iraq is infernally hot and dry; Americans aren't dying as quickly in Iraq as they did in Nam; the justifications used to pull the United States into Iraq have proven false even more quickly than the arguments for fighting in Southeast Asia did.

But the Vietnam comparison does help to undermine an oft-repeated canard about the Iraq entanglement: that it served Israeli interests. There's evidence disproving that myth, starting with the historical.

We should learn from Vietnam that when the United States is neck deep in a quagmire, it is unable to fulfill commitments to Israel, to provide a strategic umbrella, or to work for Arab-Israeli peace. Without solid U.S. backing, Israel is more likely to rely on its military than on diplomacy, with costly results. In May 1967, as Vietnam raged, Egypt moved its troops into the Sinai Peninsula and closed the Straits of Tiran, sparking the crisis that led to the Six Day War. Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban went to Washington on an urgent mission, seeking assurances that the United States would support Israel if the latter were attacked and that it would open the straits--as per longstanding commitments. Pro-Israel as President Lyndon Johnson was, his response fell short of that. In a tense White House meeting, he read a statement (preserved in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas) to Eban citing "constitutional processes" that stood in his way. Translation: With the United States sinking in Vietnam's mud, Congress wouldn't approve military action elsewhere. When Johnson did explore a congressional resolution allowing military action in the days after that meeting, his assessment proved true.

LBJ's paralysis convinced Israel that to survive, it had to act on its own, and quickly. On June 5, 1967, it launched its surprise attack. Despite wild hopes at the time, the Israeli victory did not push Arab countries to make peace; instead, it deepened the conflict and entangled Israel in its own quagmire in the occupied territories. Again, the United States had little diplomatic leverage, this time to press for peace. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated ruefully three days after the war ended in a National Security Council committee meeting, "Israelis won't ever depend on [American] guarantees. Eban [was] given [a] lesson in U.S. constitutional processes, and he won't ever forget it." Only after a series of missed diplomatic openings, another disastrous Israeli-Arab war in 1973, and the U.S. exit from Vietnam did the United States turn its energies to Middle East peace efforts, eventually brokering the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979.

Fast-forward to 2004. Bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration, despite its pro-Israel talk, is AWOL from Israeli-Arab diplomacy. Openings such as the brief tenure of pro-peace Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in summer 2003 have been squandered as the administration devotes its limited diplomatic abilities to trying to salvage its Iraq strategy. Meanwhile, Israelis and Palestinians continue to die.

But historical precedent is just one hole in the conventional wisdom that invading Iraq was a benefit performante for Israel. Another is that Israel was deeply wary of the war. Before the invasion, Iraq was not at the top of Israel's concerns, and Israeli warnings about how things could go wrong were ignored by the Bush administration. Now, Israel is likely to suffer lasting consequences from the Bush team's mistakes. Put simply, if U.S. conservatives used Israel as justification for the war, it was either because they insisted on a superficial reading of Israel's needs or because Israel served as one more pretext for a policy that had be come an idee fixe.

"The idea that the Iraq War was in any way driven by Israel's agenda I always thought was really quite bizarre," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. …

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