Left, Right Playing Blame-Israel Game

Conspiracy theories unite the political extremes, a fact that stands out starkly as the fruitcake left and loony right converge around theories blaming Jewish neoconservatives for an Iraq War they despise.

The blame-Israel surge, which erupted on the Senate floor recently when Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) defended his claim that "President Bush’s policy to secure Israel" was the reason for the war, is unlikely to subside with this week’s handover of sovereignty to Iraq’s new government amid continuing violence.

On the other side of the partisan divide, check out antiwar.com, a Web site for — among others — disgruntled Republicans and libertarians like former GOP presidential contender Pat Buchanan. Here, too, a common theme is the neocon cabal that tricked the nation into a catastrophic conflict.

To the far left, the Iraq War represents a kind of perfect storm: an imperialist United States colluding with a colonialist Israel against innocent Third Worlders.

To their kissing cousins on the far right, convoluted conspiracies involving Jews have never gone out of style but are particularly attractive these days, because they seem to explain why an otherwise-conservative president has gotten sucked into a war they deem disastrous.

Those theories reflect misinformation and outright bias, but they were given a boost by an administration that didn’t hesitate to use pro-Israel arguments to sell the war to Congress last year.

The facts point to the outrageousness of these claims.

Everything we know about President Bush suggests that he came into office determined to complete the work his father left unfinished in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush ended the Gulf War without removing Saddam Hussein from power. Ditto Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Their motives were varied, ranging from family duty to protecting vital oil interests to a frantic concern about weapons of mass destruction in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but Israel was never near the top of the list.

Once in office, the president and his top advisers picked underlings who reflected their viewpoints, including those most often mentioned as part of the neocon conspiracy: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, National Security Council official Elliot Abrams and former Bush defense adviser Richard Perle. Some of the neocons had written about the Iraqi threat to Israel, but in fact, they brought a variety of motives into their pro-war arguments.

But the administration bolstered the blame-Israel line of reasoning by using the threat Iraq posed to the Jewish state to sell the war to skeptical Democrats, hinting that a vote against the war was a vote against Israel’s security. But that was politics, not policy; protecting Israel was never central to the administration’s Iraq aims.

The people making these charges seem to blame not just a handful of influential administration officials who happen to be Jewish but the Jewish community itself — a charge that smacks of outright anti-Semitism. That, too, ignores some obvious facts.

Some pro-Israel groups were supportive of the war — quietly, out of concern for a possible backlash — but there’s no evidence they played a major role.

Polls showed Jews were more skeptical about the need for military action against Iraq than the overall electorate. According to an American Jewish Committee survey done in the long run up to the war, Jews were about 10 points less supportive of the war option than Americans in general. Almost a year later, long after the official "victory," that proportion was unchanged.

Nor was Israel a big cheerleader for the war.

Israeli leaders are happy Saddam is languishing in a prison cell instead of arming and funding terrorists, but for years they made it plain that Syria and Iran were much bigger threats to their nation’s security. As the war drums beat louder in Washington last year, some expressed serious reservations about the repercussions to Israel of a U.S. attack on Iraq. Israeli officials did not lobby for U.S. military action.

But on the left and the right, those seeking simple explanations for a tangled path to war aren’t limited by mere facts. Their eagerness to blame Israel and a coterie of Jewish neocons suggests a passion for scapegoating, a virulent anti-Israel bias, anti-Semitism, a woeful ignorance of how policy is decided in Washington — or all of the above.

The claim that the president and his team were hoodwinked in the interest of protecting Israel is dangerous hogwash. Politicians who fall into the blame-the-Jews trap are playing with fire and deserve to be condemned in the harshest terms.

At the same time, Jewish leaders have to be more proactive in making it clear: For good or bad, this is a war being fought because the top leaders in our government believed it was in America’s interests.

Israel was not a significant part of the equation when Bush took office, eager to wreak vengeance on Iraq. At best, it was an excuse when the administration was trying to build support for the war.