Pro-Israel Hawks and the Second Gulf War

On the eve of the Second Gulf War, Rep. James Moran (D-VA) told a meeting of his constituents that “if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this.” Leaders of the organized Jewish community of greater Washington, along with several of Moran’s fellow Congressional Democrats, seized upon these remarks and forced the representative to issue a rather pathetic retraction. Though this incident had no practical policy implications, the brief media furor that followed Moran’s comment enacted yet again the drama of US-Middle East relations as both the conservative elements of the Jewish community and many critics of US support for Israel, including many Arabs and Muslims, understand it. For the first group, it is necessary to maintain constant vigilance lest anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, which they tend to consider nearly indistinguishable, run amok and undermine the security of both Israel and American Jews. For the second group, Moran’s quick apology demonstrated once more the power of the Zionist lobby over not only US Middle East policy, but also what can be said in public about that policy.

Both these understandings are wrong. They are advanced in large part to promote the power of particular kinds of leaders in domestic politics and to obscure differences within the Arab and Jewish communities. Organizations like the B’nai B’rith Anti-Discrimination Committee want to strengthen the notion that any criticism of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism. Many Arab-American leaders have been reluctant to point out the extent to which Arab regimes have collaborated with the United States and Israel in blocking democracy and economic development in the Arab world, and in fueling a regional arms race. Right-wing critics of Israel, like Patrick Buchanan, appeal to old-fashioned faith in American moral purity when they ascribe all malign aspects of US Middle East policy to the corrupting influence of the pro-Israel lobby.

It is undoubtedly true that a group of neo-conservative true believers linked to Israel’s Likud Party have become extremely influential in shaping George W. Bush’s Middle East policy. But it is not the case that Israel and its Jewish supporters in the second Bush administration have somehow hijacked US Middle East policy to promote a war with Iraq. Many of those involved in pushing for an attack on Iraq are not Jewish –é most prominently Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The link between the most hawkish elements of the pro-Israel lobby and the second Bush administration is based on a confluence of interests and ideology, not ethnicity.

The Lobby’s Influence

The pro-Israel lobby, whose principal Jewish component is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), became a significant force in shaping public opinion and US Middle East policy after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Its power was simultaneously enabled and enhanced by Israel’s emergence as a regional surrogate for US military power in the Middle East in the terms outlined by the 1969 Nixon Doctrine. In the 1970s and 1980s, the lobby was able to unseat representatives and senators who could not be counted on to support Israel without qualification, such as Sen. Charles Percy (R-IL), Rep. Paul Findley (R-OH) and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA). In 2002, the pro-Israel lobby successfully targeted African-American representatives Earl Hilliard (D-AL) and Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) for defeat in Democratic primaries. Hilliard and McKinney were both vulnerable for reasons unrelated to Israel. McKinney, for instance, was defeated in part because the open primary allowed Republicans angered over her comments about the September 11 attacks to cross over and vote against her in the Democratic primary. Nonetheless, their defeat enhanced the impression that the pro-Israel lobby wields great power in electoral politics.

The establishment of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) in 1985 greatly expanded the lobby’s influence over policy as well. WINEP’s founding director, Martin Indyk, had previously been research director of AIPAC which, then as now, focuses much of its efforts on Congress. Indyk developed WINEP into a highly effective think tank devoted to maintaining and strengthening the US-Israel alliance through advocacy in the media and lobbying the executive branch.

On the eve of the 1988 presidential elections, with the first Palestinian intifada underway, WINEP made its bid to become a major player in US Middle East policy discussions by issuing a report entitled “Building for Peace: An American Strategy for the Middle East.” The report urged the incoming administration to “resist pressures for a procedural breakthrough [on Palestinian-Israeli peace issues] until conditions have ripened.” Six members of the study group responsible for the report joined the first Bush administration, which adopted this stalemate recipe not to change until change was unavoidable. Hence, the US acceded to Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization despite the PLO’s recognition of Israel at the November 1988 session of the Palestine National Council.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the first Bush administration felt obliged to offer a reward to its Arab wartime allies by making an effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. It convened a one-day international conference at Madrid in October followed by eleven sessions of bilateral Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in Washington. These talks were fruitless, in part because Israel still refused to negotiate with Palestinians who were official representatives of the PLO. Then, as now, Israel preferred to choose the Palestinians with whom it would negotiate.

When Israel became serious about attempting to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, it circumvented the US-sponsored negotiations in Washington (and the pro-Israel lobby) and spoke directly to representatives of the PLO in Oslo. The result was the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles. Thus, the adoption of WINEP’s policy recommendation to “resist pressures for a procedural breakthrough” by both the Bush and Clinton administrations delayed the start of meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, contributed to the demonization of the PLO and multiplied the casualty rate of the first Palestinian intifada.

Despite what might reasonably be judged as a major policy failure, WINEP’s influence grew, especially in the mass media. Its associates, especially deputy director Patrick Clawson, director for policy and planning Robert Satloff and senior fellow Michael Eisenstadt, appear frequently on television and radio talk shows as commentators on Middle East issues. Its board of advisors includes Mortimer Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, and Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic.

“Dual Containment”

WINEP’s advocacy extended to matters far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well before most Americans took note of radical Islam as a potential threat to their security, for instance, WINEP and its associates were promoting the notion that Israel is a reliable US ally against the spread of Islamism. After Israel expelled over 400 alleged Palestinian Islamist activists from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in December 1992, Israeli television Middle East analyst and WINEP associate Ehud Yaari wrote an op-ed in the New York Times summarizing his Hebrew television report of a vast US-based conspiracy to fund Hamas. WINEP’s 1992 annual Soref Symposium — “Islam and the US: Challenges for the Nineties” é– focused on whether or not Islam was a danger to the United States. At that event, Martin Indyk argued that the US ought not to encourage democracy in countries that were friendly to Washington, like Jordan and Egypt, and that political participation should be limited to secular parties. This recommendation seemed like a formula for ensuring that Islamist forces would forsake legal political action and engage in armed struggle –é precisely what happened in Egypt from 1992 to 1997.

The Clinton administration was even more thoroughly colonized by WINEP associates than its predecessor. Eleven signatories of the final report of WINEP’s 1992 commission on US-Israeli relations, “Enduring Partnership,” joined the Clinton administration. Among them were National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, UN Ambassador and later Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eisenstat and the late Les Aspin, Clinton’s first secretary of defense. Shortly after assuming office in 1993, the Clinton administration announced a policy of “dual containment” aimed at isolating Iran and Iraq. The principal formulator and spokesperson for that policy was Martin Indyk, in his new role as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. “Dual containment” was the forerunner of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” policy.

Hawks Ascendant

In the current Bush administration, however, WINEP’s influence has been outflanked on the right by individuals linked to more monolithically neo-conservative and hawkish think tanks like the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), established in 1997 and chaired by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Before they entered the administration, JINSA’s board of advisors included Cheney, Undersecretary of State John Bolton and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. Richard Perle, recently compelled to resign from the chairmanship of the quasi-governmental Defense Policy Board under a cloud of scandal, still serves on the board of JINSA. PNAC affiliates include Cheney and his chief of staff Lewis Libby, Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Bolton, special envoy to “Free Iraqis” Zalmay Khalilzad, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage and Elliott Abrams, a rehabilitated Iran-contra criminal who now serves as National Security Council adviser for the Middle East. JINSA and PNAC, along with a similar think tank called the Center for Security Policy, combine WINEP’s vocal advocacy for the US-Israeli alliance with calls for greatly increased US defense spending and unapologetic US intervention abroad.

Where WINEP and AIPAC tend to hew to the line of whichever Israeli government is in power, JINSA associates align themselves with the territorial ambitions of the Israeli right. As early as July 8, 1996, Perle, Feith and a special assistant to John Bolton named David Wurmser sought to make common cause with the Likud Party for a war against Iraq. Perle presented a position paper prepared in consultation with Feith, Bolton, Wurmser and others to newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The paper, written under the auspices of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies based in Washington and Jerusalem and entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” advocated that Israel repudiate the Oslo accords and seek permanent annexation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even more provocatively, it urged Israel to support Jordan in advocating restoration of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq and the elimination of the regime of Saddam Hussein — “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.”

The “Clean Break” paper appealed to the Likud’s general strategic vision. A preemptive war against Iraq would legitimate the principle of using force to solve diplomatic and political problems, which Israel has done on several occasions, most grandly in the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1982. Two days after receiving a copy of the “Clean Break” paper, Netanyahu delivered an address to a joint session of Congress embracing several of its propositions. The Wall Street Journal published excerpts from the paper the same day and editorially endorsed it on July 11.

For its part, on January 26, 1998, PNAC sent a letter to President Bill Clinton urging that he launch a war against Iraq. The signatories included Kristol, Cheney, Libby, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bolton, Perle, Abrams, Khalilzad and Armitage. Unhappy that Clinton did not take their advice, the same group repeated their proposals in letters to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senate majority leader Trent Lott on May 29, 1998. The result of efforts by PNAC and others was the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act of November 1998, which announced the switch in US Iraq policy from disarmament to regime change. This legislation was adopted weeks before Clinton ordered the UNSCOM inspectors out of Iraq and launched Operation Desert Fox — four days of intensive bombing.


Soon after the September 11 attacks, Perle convened a two-day seminar of the Defense Policy Board. The consensus of those attending was that removing Saddam Hussein from power should be an objective in the US war on terrorism despite the lack of any evidence linking Iraq to the attacks or to al-Qaeda. The Defense Policy Board then sent former CIA director and JINSA board member James Woolsey to London to gather evidence linking Iraq to the terrorist attacks. He announced that Muhammad Atta, alleged ringleader of the September 11 hijackers, had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent, Ahmad al-Ani, in Prague. That claim has been repeatedly disputed by Czech domestic intelligence officials, but it has contributed significantly to the widespread belief among Americans that Iraq was behind the destruction of the World Trade Center.

On September 20, 2001, Perle and several other Defense Policy Board members sent an open letter to Bush. “Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [September 11] attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq,” they wrote. “Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”

Confluence of Interests

Perle also sits on the advisory board of WINEP, the more established pro-Israel think tank in Washington (as did Wolfowitz before he entered government). While JINSA and PNAC urged action in Iraq, WINEP continued to counsel inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian front. In the spring of 2002, Robert Satloff, WINEP’s director of policy and planning, co-chaired a 52-member group of “experts” and members of Congress who concurred with the Bush administration position “that circumstances were not ripe for high-level efforts to restart the peace negotiations, and that the most urgent task was to prevent a regional war while fighting terrorism and weapons proliferation.” The advice, once again, was not to change until change is unavoidable -é- a policy which allows Israel to assert its overwhelming military advantage and to continue to create facts on the ground, especially settlements, which will make peace all the more difficult to achieve in the future.

The interests of the pro-Israel lobby and the attack-Iraq caucus of the second Bush administration have converged, and are to a significant degree represented by the same people. That is not to say that the interests they are pursuing overlap completely. For the neo-conservatives operating under the patronage of Cheney and Rumsfeld, the immediate interests are demonstrating that the overwhelming military power of the US can and will be efficaciously deployed to make and unmake regimes and guarantee access to oil. Destroying the Iraqi regime and installing a long-term US military presence in the Persian Gulf of even greater magnitude than now exists will remove the present limited threat to US oil interests in the region. It would reduce the need to conciliate the Saudis or the Russians or to develop alternative sources of energy. With the Second Gulf War, the neo-conservatives aim to establish the principle, in the extraordinarily hubristic words of President George H. W. Bush after the 1991 Gulf war, that “what we say goes.” This agenda is far broader than that of the traditional pro-Israel lobby, although Ariel Sharon and his supporters are amenable to it and will seek to exploit it for Israel’s purposes to the maximum extent possible.

Joel Beinin, a contributing editor of Middle East Report, is a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. Above article first appeared in Middle East Report Online and republished here with permission.