Cheney’s Israel-Iraq Comment Misleads

Israel has received scant attention in the run-up to the Nov. 2 presidential election. Iraq and the war against Al Qaeda have dominated the foreign policy discussions. And with neither candidate sketching out an approach to resuming the peace process, both sides prefer instead to simply affirm support for Israel’s right to defend itself, a mutual stance that requires little dialogue.

The subject, however, has not been overlooked altogether. In the first presidential debate on Sept. 30, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry said success was necessary in Iraq to ensure Israel’s safety. And in last Friday’s second debate, Bush used a question on how he planned to repair broken relations with other countries to reflect on unpopular decisions he has made, including rejecting P.A. Chairman Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner.

“You know, I made some decisions on Israel … that’s unpopular,” Bush told the town-hall style debate in St. Louis. “I wouldn’t deal with Arafat because I felt he had let the former president down, and I don’t think he’s the kind of person that can lead toward a Palestinian state.”

But the most interesting Israel reference came in the vice presidential debate on Oct. 5. Sen. John Edwards reflected on the terrorist attacks afflicting Israelis when asked about the level of U.S. engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Vice President Dick Cheney switched the conversation back to Iraq.

“In respect to Israel and Palestine, Gwen, the suicide bombers, in part, were generated by Saddam Hussein, who paid $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers,” Cheney told moderator Gwen Ifill. “I personally think one of the reasons that we don’t have as many suicide attacks today in Israel as we’ve had in the past is because Saddam is no longer in business.”

Cheney was correct to note that Saddam rewarded families of Palestinian suicide bombers with $25,000 checks. He was also right that the number of terror attacks in Israel has dramatically decreased in the last year. But his attempt to link the two was disingenuous.

Regular observers of the Middle East recognize it was not American actions that led to the decrease in terror attacks, but rather Israeli ones — primarily Israel’s construction of a network of fences and walls along the West Bank coupled with a major counterterrorism offensive that has spanned several years.

If Cheney had been right, and the reduction in bombings was really the result of the end of financial incentives for terrorism, then one would expect many fewer attempted attacks as well as many fewer actual ones. In fact, that hasn’t been the case.

“The reality,” said Dennis Ross, Washington’s former special Middle East envoy, “is that the number of [attempted] attacks have not dropped significantly. The barrier and the siege have prevented the attacks from being successful. Even if Saddam was still encouraging them, the barrier and the siege would prevent them from being successful.” What Cheney said Tuesday night, Ross added, “doesn’t really relate to reality.”

Indeed, the will to carry out attacks remains, even without Saddam’s financial rewards. In 2002, the second year of the Palestinian intifada, 55 suicide bombings killed 203 people, according to the Associated Press; in the third year, 26 bombings claimed 140 lives; and in the past year, 14 bombings killed 76. But many more than 14 terrorists have tried to carry out attacks during the last nine months. Israeli forces have thwarted scores of bombings through arrests and military operations in the West Bank. According to Israeli military figures cited by The Washington Post, two of three bombers reached their targets in 2001, before Israel began construction of its security barrier. This year the ratio has fallen to one in nine.

“The reason we don’t have [as many] Israeli casualties is because we are successful in fighting terror,” Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir told The Post. “We are pinpointing more and more terrorists.”

Cheney’s assertion was strange for another reason: Saddam was hardly the primary state sponsor of suicide terrorism in Israel. The $25,000 checks were a gimmick designed to burnish Saddam’s image among Palestinians who saw him as a champion of their cause. But countries like Iran (which directly funds Palestinian terrorist groups and provides them with arms via Hezbollah) and Syria (which shelters Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders) are having a more pernicious effect on the level of terror in Israel than Saddam ever did. Israel has routinely blamed Tehran and Damascus for their support of Palestinian terrorism, while also noting that Hamas fundraisers have been held in Saudi Arabia.

To be sure, Saddam’s continuing presence in Baghdad was a threat to Israel, and on balance Israelis are glad to have him gone. But whatever the benefits to Israel of Saddam’s removal, the elimination of his payments to suicide bombers was not a key factor in the campaign against Palestinian terrorism.

Janine Zacharia is the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She also is a regular contributor to The New Republic and a Mideast analyst for MSNBC. She wrote this article for The Jewish Journal.