Scapegoat for Iraq

From the moment the wheel turned, and Iraq became a second Vietnam - a war without reason or purpose - the inevitable fallout from America's weakness has landed on Israel, its satellite in the region.

Israel is trying to distance itself from the war in Iraq, as if events there did not concern it. But Iraq is chasing Israel: As the Americans become ever more deeply embroiled between Baghdad and Faluja, and the campaign for liberation and democracy becomes a horror show, a difficult problem is also developing for Israel's foreign policy.

The main cause for worry is the casting of the blame on the band of Jewish neo-conservatives at the Pentagon. According to some critics of the war, it was they who exploited President George W. Bush's naivete and pushed him into an unnecessary and risky adventure in order to help Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The proof of this "cabal" is the famous memorandum from 1996 written by several of the neo-conservatives after Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, in which they recommended attacking Iraq and stopping the Oslo process. This document has become particularly pernicious ammunition in anti-Semitic propaganda, a kind of modern version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even if this time around it is about youngsters from Washington.

At the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, there is concern about the strengthening of the opinion that America got itself into the mud only to help Israel in its endless war against the Arabs. They are thinking about a quiet diplomatic effort to blur the connection between Iraq and Israel. This is no simple task.

The Israeli leadership was very enthusiastic about the striking of the American blow on an Arab state, about the deposing of the hated Saddam Hussein, and about the expectation that the freedom of action against the Palestinians would expand. Sharon even gave backing to the mistaken American and British intelligence assessments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Did the war do Israel any good, or would it have been better to have left Saddam in place as a weakened and pursued tyrant? The answer is complex. Israel received generous guarantees for the rescue of its economy, the threat that had developed in Libya was removed, and Iran has encountered increasing pressure against its nuclear programs. This was the situation in the first moments of victory. But from the moment the wheel turned, and Iraq became a second Vietnam - a war without reason or purpose - the inevitable fallout from America's weakness has landed on Israel, its satellite in the region.

The problem is not only in making Israel a scapegoat because the architects of the war are Jewish. The failure also has a diplomatic price. The friends of the United States in Europe, at the United Nations and in the Arab countries are demanding that it distance itself from Israel and from Sharon in return for their help in Iraq. Bush has had to balance his promises to Sharon on the Palestinian issue, mainly because of the pictures of the torturing of prisoners. Europe, which can smell America's weakness, is responding to every pro-Israeli move with a parallel move benefiting the Palestinians. The foreign ministers and European officials told Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that their support for a UN resolution on "Palestinian sovereignty in all the territories" was a result of Bush's letter to Sharon.

A UN representative in Iraq has said that Israel is the source of the troubles in the region, and the American administration has refrained from condemning his words, despite the pressures applied by members of Congress. At the UN Secretariat it was explained to Israel that the "miserable" statement was important for "creating legitimacy." American officials whispered that the envoy was trying to protect himself from threats to his life.

The Americans do not understand the first thing about the Middle East and the Arabs. Bush's interview to the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram demonstrated the gap. The Egyptian interviewer asked about the rights of the Palestinians, the stealing of their land and the right of return, and the president talked about "help to stimulate the entrepreneurial class so businesses will grow" in the Palestinian state.

Israel is now reaping the benefits of this ignorance. But the benevolent hour is waning. Even if Arab culture is foreign to the Americans, the skyrocketing prices of oil are well understood in Washington and in Texas. The stronger the reaction to the war grows in the United States, the stronger the call will be to exact a price from Israel. And this poses a complicated challenge to Sharon and his partners in the Israeli leadership.