Groups to Bush: Drop Iran-Israel Linkage
May 12, 2006 - The Foreward:
WASHINGTON — Jewish community leaders have urged the White House to
refrain from publicly pledging to defend Israel against possible
Iranian hostilities, senior Jewish activists told the Forward.
Messages were passed to the White House through several channels,
Jewish activists said. And it seems to have worked: Speaking before the
annual conference of the American Jewish Committee in Washington last
week — his most recent address before a Jewish audience — President
Bush talked about America's commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a
nuclear weapon and about his administration's commitment to Israeli
security, but he did not link the two, as he has several times in
"We are basically telling the president: We appreciate it, we welcome
it. But, hey, because there is this debate on Iraq, where people are
trying to put the blame on us, maybe you shouldn't say it that often or
that loud," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the
Anti-Defamation League. "Within the Jewish community there is a real
sense of 'thank you but no thank you.'"
Communal leaders say that although they deeply appreciate the
president's repeated promises to come to Israel's defense, public
declarations to that effect do more harm than good. Such statements,
they say, create an impression that the United States is considering a
military option against Iran for the sake of Israel — and could lead to
American Jews being blamed for any negative consequences of an American
strike against Iran.
Jewish activists are concerned that "there would be [a scenario] just
like with Iraq: the idea that somehow the Jewish community and the
neoconservatives have dragged the United States into a conflict with
Iran," said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish
Council for Public Affairs, a policy coordinating organization that
brings together 13 national Jewish agencies and 123 local Jewish
communities. "And if things go badly and our people are killed, then
who is to blame?"
In early February, during an interview with Reuters, the president was
asked about America's reaction to Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmedinejad's threats against Israel. Bush replied: "We will rise to
Israel's defense, if need be. So this kind of menacing talk is
disturbing. It's not only disturbing to the United States, it's
disturbing for other countries in the world, as well." Asked whether he
meant that the United States would militarily defend Israel, Bush said:
"You bet we'll defend Israel."
The White House's public liaison office has been ending its e-mails to
the Jewish community with the following Bush quote from a March 20
appearance: "I made it clear. I'll make it clear again, that we will
use military might to protect our ally, Israel." At the time, Bush was
speaking about the threat posed by Iran.
Most Jewish communal leaders, despite their unease, say that the
president talks about defending Israel from Iran out of a deep,
personal commitment to the Jewish state.
"This comes from the heart," Foxman said.
Some, however, say that other factors may be at work, specifically the
president's poor approval ratings, even among members of his political
base. Two recent opinion polls show Bush's support among conservatives
dropping, including among evangelicals, who consistently cite their
support of Israel as a key political priority.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the White House is playing politics here,"
said an activist with a major Jewish group, speaking on condition of
Jewish objections to the president's rhetoric have increased in recent
weeks, as the storm created by a recent paper by two academics
criticizing the influence of the "Israel Lobby" continues to grow. The
study, co-authored by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and
Stephen Walt of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, has
been attracting support in national media outlets with its thesis that
Israel, with the help of powerful supporters in Washington, has all but
hijacked America's policy in the Middle East.
In one such article, Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor at large at United
Press International, wrote April 24 that the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee, the lobbying powerhouse known as Aipac, "has
maneuvered to make Israel the third rail of American foreign policy."
In addition, more than 1,000 Americans, most of them university
professors, have signed an online petition challenging the Conference
of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body
of 52 groups that serves as Jewish community's main united voice on
Middle East issues, to "condemn" the "smearing" of Mearsheimer and Walt
by several fellow scholars and pundits as "antisemites."
The executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, Malcolm
Hoenlein, said that none of the Jewish organizations in the umbrella
group had accused the two scholars of being antisemitic. But Juan Cole,
the University of Michigan professor who initiated the petition,
pointed out that the Anti-Defamation League has. In a comment on the
study posted on its Web site in March, the ADL expressed the hope that
"mainstream individuals and institutions will see it for what it is ññ
a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards
of Jewish power and Jewish control."
Even with the buzz surrounding Walt and Mearsheimer's paper, not
everyone agrees that the president's statements are potentially
damaging for the Jewish community. One senior official with a major
Jewish group, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "So what do
[Jewish communal leaders] want? They want the president of Iran to be
threatening Israel with nuclear destruction and the United States will
say nothing? If that happens they would be complaining: 'Why aren't you
committing yourselves to protecting Israel?'"
Robert Freedman, a professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew
University and an expert on Iran, calls the concerns about the
president's statements "nonsense" and "foolish." First, he said, the
case for tough action against Iran is stronger than the case was for
action against Iraq — the intelligence this time is solid, the Iranian
president says he wants to destroy Israel and Iran's possession of
nuclear weapons poses a much greater danger to the region than Saddam
Hussein's regime ever did. Second, according to Freedman, the risk of
an entanglement in Iran is much smaller. A military campaign against
Iran would most likely not involve a ground invasion, but an air
bombing campaign. Third, he said, Israel is not in as good a position
to carry out such a bombing campaign as the United States is.
"So," Freedman said, "if the president of the United States says, 'I am
going to support Israel and we will not let Israel be destroyed,' that
should be taken as a given and as a good given."