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December 14, 2005

Israel Troubled by Bush's Priorities

by Jim Lobe

Despite their mutual enthusiasm for ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, 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 in Washington late last month that they do not see the alternatives to the young leader as particularly attractive.

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 Brotherhood 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 neoconservatives for whom Israel's security is considered a core principle.

But neoconservatives 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 neoconservatives broke with him over his disengagement from Gaza.

In spite of their gradual decline in influence in the Bush administration since the Iraq invasion, neoconservatives 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 hardliners who championed the Iraq invasion, notably Vice President Dick Cheney and some senior Pentagon officials.

In the past year, neoconservatives 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 change."

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 neoconservative 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 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 Ahmadinejad, 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 standoff 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. The group, 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 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 hardliners two and a half years ago.

The Israelis and their supporters in the U.S. 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."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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