Israeli officials warned the George W. Bush administration
that an invasion of Iraq would be destabilizing to the region and urged the
United States to instead target Iran as the primary enemy, according to former
administration official Lawrence Wilkerson.
Wilkerson, then a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff and
later chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, recalled in an interview
with IPS that the Israelis reacted immediately to indications that the Bush
administration was thinking of war against Iraq. After the Israeli government
picked up the first signs of that intention, Wilkerson says, "The Israelis
were telling us Iraq is not the enemy Iran is the enemy."
Wilkerson describes the Israeli message to the Bush administration in early
2002 as being, "If you are going to destabilize the balance of power, do
it against the main enemy."
The warning against an invasion of Iraq was "pervasive" in Israeli
communications with the administration, Wilkerson recalls. It was conveyed to
the administration by a wide range of Israeli sources, including political figures,
intelligence, and private citizens.
Wilkerson notes that the main point of their communications was not that the
United States should immediately attack Iran, but that "it should not be
distracted by Iraq and Saddam Hussein" from a focus on the threat from
The Israeli advice against using military force against Iraq was apparently
triggered by reports reaching Israeli officials in December 2001 that the Bush
administration was beginning serious planning for an attack on Iraq. Journalist
Bob Woodward revealed in Plan
of Attack that on Dec. 1, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
had ordered the Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks to come up with the
first formal briefing on a new war plan for Iraq on Dec. 4. That started a period
of intense discussions of war planning between Rumsfeld and Franks.
Soon after Israeli officials got wind of that planning, Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon asked for a meeting with Bush primarily to discuss U.S. intentions
to invade Iraq. In the weeks preceding Sharon's meeting with Bush on Feb. 7,
2002, a procession of Israeli officials conveyed the message to the Bush administration
that Iran represented a greater threat, according to a Washington Post
report on the eve of the meeting.
Israeli Defense Minister Fouad Ben-Eliezer, who was visiting Washington with
Sharon, revealed the essence of the strategic differences between Tel Aviv and
Washington over military force. He was quoted by the Post as saying,
"Today, everybody is busy with Iraq. Iraq is a problem.
should understand, if you ask me, today Iran is more dangerous than Iraq."
Sharon, who has been in a coma since early 2006, never revealed publicly what
he said to Bush in the Feb. 7 meeting. But Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to
Prime Minister Ehud Barak, wrote in an article in the Forward last January
that Sharon advised Bush not to occupy Iraq, according to a knowledgeable source.
Alpher wrote that Sharon also assured Bush that Israel would not "push
one way or another" regarding his plan to take down Saddam Hussein.
Alpher noted that Washington did not want public support by Israel and in fact
requested that Israel refrain from openly supporting the invasion in order to
avoid an automatic negative reaction from Iraq's Arab neighbors.
After that meeting, the Sharon government generally remained silent on the
issue of an invasion of Iraq. A notable exception, however, was a statement
on Aug. 16, 2002 by Ranaan Gissin, an aide to Sharon. Ranaan declared, "Any
postponement of an attack on Iraq at this stage will serve no purpose. It will
only give [Hussein] more of an opportunity to accelerate his program of weapons
of mass destruction."
As late as October 2002, however, there were still signs of continuing Israeli
grumbling about the Bush administration's obsession with taking over Iraq. Both
the Israeli Defense Forces' chief of staff and its chief of military intelligence
made public statements that month implicitly dismissing the Bush administration's
position that Saddam Hussein's alleged quest for nuclear weapons made him the
main threat. Both officials suggested that Israel's military advantage over
Iraq had continued to increase over the decade since the Gulf War as Iraq had
The Israeli chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash, said
Iraq had not deployed any missiles that could strike Israel directly and challenged
the Bush administration's argument that Iraq could obtain nuclear weapons within
a relatively short time. He gave an interview to Israeli television in which
he said army intelligence had concluded that Iraq could not have nuclear weapons
in less than four years. He insisted that Iran was as much of a nuclear threat
Israeli strategists generally believed that taking down the Hussein regime
could further upset an Iran-Iraq power balance that had already tilted in favor
of Iran after the U.S. defeat of Hussein's army in the 1991 Gulf War. By 1996,
however, neoconservatives with ties to the Likud Party were beginning to argue
for a more aggressive joint U.S.-Israeli strategy aimed at a "rollback"
of all of Israel's enemies in the region, including Iran, but beginning by taking
down Hussein and putting a pro-Israeli regime in power there.
That was the thrust of the 1996 report of a task force led by Richard Perle
for the right-wing Israeli think tank the Institute for Advanced Strategic and
Political Studies and aimed at the Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
But most strategists in the Israeli government and the Likud Party including
Sharon himself did not share that viewpoint. Despite agreement between neoconservatives
and Israeli officials on many issues, the dominant Israeli strategic judgment
on the issue of invading Iraq diverged from that of U.S. neoconservatives because
of differing political-military interests.
Israel was more concerned with the relative military threat posed by Iran and
Iraq, whereas neoconservatives in the Bush administration were focused on regime
change in Iraq as a low-cost way of leveraging more ambitious changes in the
region. From the neoconservative perspective, the very military weakness of
Hussein's Iraq made it the logical target for the use of U.S. military power.
(Inter Press Service)