Israelis Grow Troubled by Bush Priorities

Israelis Grow Troubled by Bush Priorities

 Despite their mutual enthusiasm for ousting Saddam, Israel and the
United States appear increasingly at odds over what to do about the larger Middle
East region.

While the administration of President George W. Bush favors, or is at least
indifferent to, the collapse of the Ba’athist regime of Syrian President Bashar
Assad, the Israelis reportedly made it very clear in high-level talks here late last
month that they do not see the alternatives to the young leader as particularly

At the same time, while Washington appears relatively content with Europe and Russia
taking the lead in diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program
well short of any weapons capacity, Israel is growing concerned that Washington’s
threats to push for international sanctions or even attack suspected nuclear targets
in Iran are becoming less and less credible.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose new party is expected to emerge
as the strongest in elections next year, is also increasingly worried about
Washington’s pro-democracy drive for the region. In its view, the U.S. campaign risks
empowering Islamist groups that are ideologically even more hostile to Israel than
the authoritarian regimes they are challenging.

In that respect, the strong showing by the candidates affiliated with the Muslim
in recent parliamentary elections in Egypt, the Arab state with which
Israel first established peace, is considered particularly ominous.

The notion that Sharon is unhappy with the direction of U.S. policy in the region
naturally challenges the view that Israel exercises a dominant — if not decisive —
influence over Washington’s Middle East policy, particularly since the rise within
the Bush administration after the September 2001 attacks of neo-conservatives for
whom “Israel’s security is considered a core principle”.

But neo-conservatives ( have generally held
their own views about how that security can be best ensured — usually in ways that
are much closer to the right-wing Likud Party
(, whose ranks Sharon has just
deserted, than to an Israeli government whose policies they consider too dovish.

Thus, while they cheered Sharon for his harsh crackdown against the second
Palestinian intifada, many neo-conservatives broke with him over his disengagement
from Gaza.

In spite of their gradual decline in influence in the Bush administration since the
Iraq invasion, neo-conservatives have been lobbying hard for the past two years for a
policy of “regime change” in Syria. If necessary, this would include limited military
strikes designed to humiliate Assad and punish him for his alleged failure to
dismantle operations by the Iraqi insurgency and “foreign fighters” in Syria. They
have been backed by the same hard-liners who championed the Iraq invasion, notably
Vice President Dick Cheney and some senior Pentagon officials.

In the past year, neo-conservatives have also argued that overthrowing the Ba’athist
regime in Syria would add momentum to U.S. efforts to spread democracy in the region,
particularly in the wake of Damascus’ withdrawal of its military and intelligence
forces from Lebanon after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik
Hariri in February.

The withdrawal, as well as the subsequent UN investigation that has pointed the
finger at Damascus, has strengthened those in the administration who favor “regime

But Israel, whose own analysis of the situation in Syria echoes that of regional
experts in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the State Department, has voiced
strong reservations, most recently at last month’s strategic dialogue.

According to an account of Israel’s presentation by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency
(JTA), the Israeli representatives cited three possible post-Assad scenarios, “none
of them good”.

They included chaos that could actually see the spread of Iraq’s burgeoning sectarian
conflict engulfing Syria and even Lebanon; the seizure of power by the Muslim
Brotherhood; or the emergence of another leader from Assad’s minority Alawite sect
( who would be far more authoritarian.

In their view, both Assad’s secular domestic opposition and his exiled foes, notably
neo-conservative favorite Farid Ghadry
(, are far too weak and
disorganized to rally a mass following or seriously contest power. To the Israelis,
according to an account in the Jewish Forward, the main U.S. Jewish newspaper, Assad
“is more than ’the devil you know’, he is the only Syrian that can maintain order”.

“The status quo in Syria seems to Israel to be the least bad scenario; a weak,
impotent leader without any cards to play”, said Leon Hadar
(, an Israeli-born expert whose recent book, “Sandstorm”
(, argues for a much reduced U.S.
role and presence in the region.

“The short- and medium-term Israeli interest is clearly not to see anarchy or chaos
in either Lebanon or Syria with all the mess they have to deal with in the West Bank
and Gaza”, he said.

If the Israeli government fears the administration’s activism when it comes to Syria,
it is far more concerned about U.S. passivity over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons
program. This is particularly so in light of recent threats against the Jewish state
by Tehran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and an Israeli military intelligence
assessment that such a program could become irreversible as early as next March.

At last month’s talks, Israeli officials reportedly reproached their U.S.
interlocutors for agreeing to delay an effort to press the board of the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible
sanctions in light of a previous IAEA finding that Tehran had withheld information
about its nuclear program.

Washington instead agreed to delay a campaign to bring the issue to the Security
Council in order to permit the so-called EU-3 (France, Germany and Britain) to
present a Russian proposal to resolve the current stand-off over Iran’s uranium
enrichment plans.

Israel’s complaints coincided with an extremely rare public criticism of the
administration by the chief Zionist lobby in Washington, the American Israeli Public
Affairs Committee or AIPAC (

The AIPAC, which is particularly powerful in Congress, warned that further delay
“poses a severe danger to the United States and our allies, and puts America and our
interests at risk”.

The Israelis were particularly taken aback, according to the Jewish Forward, by the
administration’s failure to vigorously object to a recent Russian deal to sell Tehran
more than one billion dollars worth of anti-aircraft missiles, “which could be used
to help Iran protect its nuclear facilities against a possible air strike”.

They were also displeased by the announcement that the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad,
Zalmay Khalilzad (, has received
presidential authority to resume direct talks with Iran about its interests and
activities in Iraq that were cut off by administration hard-liners two and a half
years ago.

The Israelis and their supporters here fear that Washington’s need for Tehran’s
cooperation in stabilizing Iraq and thus permitting most U.S. forces there to
withdraw over the next year has weakened the administration’s leverage to push for
stronger action against Iran on the nuclear issue, even as it continues to insist
that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability is “unacceptable”.