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May 11, 2006

In News

By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, May 9 (IPS) – Amid growing tensions between the United States and Iran, leaders of the U.S. Jewish community are expressing concern over Pres. George W. Bush’s recent statements that his main concern in any possible military action would be protecting Israel.

While persuaded that a nuclear Iran would indeed present an “existential threat” to Israel, they fear that any negative consequences arising from a U.S. attack could promote an anti-Semitic backlash that would also damage Washington’s long-term support for the Jewish state.

In addition, citing Israel as justification for confronting Iran will make it far more difficult to rally other countries behind Washington’s moves against Tehran, they say.

Those concerns surfaced dramatically last week at the centennial convention of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) when an AJC board member received a rousing ovation for asking Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman to “take a message” to Bush to stop linking U.S. actions against Iran with Israel’s security.

“It does not help Israel and it does not help American Jews to appear to be stimulators of any action against Iran,” said Edith Everett.

Her “message” echoed what appears to be a growing consensus in the Jewish community that Jews both here and in Israel have a great deal to lose if they are perceived as leading the charge to war against Iran, particularly in light of the debacle in Iraq.

“Given this war’s disastrous consequences, its growing unpopularity even among Republicans and the hopelessness of a decent exit, anger is building,” warned a recent editorial in the largest-circulation Jewish newspaper, ‘The Forward’, which noted that Israel and U.S. Jews — wrongly, in its view — were being increasingly blamed for persuading the administration to invade.

In fact, U.S. Jews were, if anything, somewhat less supportive of going to war in Iraq than the general population, according to public opinion polls, which have since found Jews to have been quicker than just about any other group to conclude that the invasion was a major mistake.

At the same time, however, top officials in Israel’s Likud-led government clearly encouraged — albeit mostly discreetly — the administration on its course, while prominent neo-conservatives, for whom concern about Israel’s security and a right-wing Zionist worldview have long been defining characteristics, took the lead in promoting the war, both inside and outside the administration. While most neo-conservatives are Jewish, most U.S. Jews, while very sympathetic to Israel, are not neo-conservatives.

“Within the United States, the main driving force behind the Iraq war was a small band of neoconservatives, many with close ties to Israel’s Likud Party,” concluded a recent controversial paper entitled “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” by two top foreign policy scholars, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

They called “pressure from Israel and the Lobby”, which is led by the America Israel-Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a “critical” — but not the exclusive — factor in the administration’s decision to go to war.

Despite attacks on the paper by leading neo-conservatives and others who claim that it was poorly researched and anti-Semitic, charges strongly rebutted by the authors, the paper’s core thesis — that the Israel Lobby’s influence has distorted U.S. Middle East policy in ways that have damaged U.S. interests in the region — and the Establishment credentials of its authors have contributed to a growing sense of vulnerability within the Jewish community.

Added to this is the pending prosecution of two senior AIPAC officials accused of transmitting classified information about Iran obtained from a Pentagon intelligence analyst with neo-conservative sympathies to the Israeli embassy.

The fact that many of the same neo-conservatives who pounded the war drums against Iraq are now playing a similar role — along with AIPAC and top Israeli officials — with respect to Iran is adding to the community’s concerns.

In this context, Bush’s own increasingly frequent statements linking possible U.S. actions against Iran with Israel’s security is compounding the discomfort.

As pointed out by New York’s Jewish Week last month, his most startling assertion to date came in answer to a question about the influence of apocalyptic Christian theology on his policies during an Ohio community meeting in March. “…(T)he threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our strong ally, Israel,” he said. “I made it clear, and I’ll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally, Israel.”

“It’s a horrible thing to do, it’s dangerous,” Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Jewish member of Congress, told the newspaper. “If something goes wrong, it’s a set-up to say we did it for Israel and not for America, and to blame the Jews.”

The ‘Week’ also quoted Shoshana Bryen, projects director of the hard-line neo-conservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), as complaining that Bush’s focus on Israel would undermine its efforts to forge a broad international coalition to pressure, or even take military action, against Iran.

Bush returned, however, to the same theme in an interview that appeared in Germany’s Bild am Sonntag last weekend.

“When (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) says that he wants to destroy Israel, the world needs to take it seriously. This is a serious threat, aimed at an ally of the United States and Germany,” he said, although he quickly followed up by trying to put the alleged threat into a larger context.

“What Ahmadinejad also means is that if he is ready to destroy one country, then he would also be ready to destroy others,” he added. “This is a threat that needs to be dealt with.”

So long as Bush highlights Israel’s security as the main motivation for his aggressive posture against Iran, however, concerns within the Jewish community about the consequences of a U.S. attack are likely to grow.

‘The Forward’ editorialised last month that attacking Iran would almost certainly result in “calamity” both in the region and in a possible anti-Semitic backlash.

Just last week, Dennis Ross, a former top U.S. Middle East negotiator who now works for the AIPAC-founded Washington Institute for Near Policy and chairs the Institute for Jewish People Policy Planning, a new organisation created by the Jewish Agency to help coordinate the interests of Israel and Diaspora Jews, called for Washington to join with its European partners in direct talks with Iran, including offers of new incentives to persuade it to freeze its nuclear programme. (END/2006)