Israel's Looming Catastrophe

For the past three decades, Israel
has charted a course that invites its own destruction by relying on two
risky propositions: first, that it could extend its security perimeter
beyond the reach of a devastating missile attack, and second, that it
could permanently control the political debate inside its crucial ally,
the United States.

Israel's current assault on Gaza is only the latest manifestation of
this dangerous strategy, but - whether or not Israel succeeds in its
stated goal of stopping the launching of short-range Hamas rockets -
the more troubling writing for Israel remains on the wall.

If
Israel continues to engender hatred across the Muslim world - and thus
feeds the growth of Islamic extremism - eventually some radical
government or group will get hold of a missile or some other means of
delivering a payload against Tel Aviv that would wreak mass devastation.

In
that event, Israel would almost surely turn to its sophisticated
nuclear arsenal and launch a massive retaliatory strike. But to what
end? Whatever counter-devastation could be delivered, it would not
solve the strategic dilemma facing Israel.

Indeed,
retaliation would likely make matters worse by engendering even a
stronger determination among Muslims to eliminate whatever would be
left of Israel. The situation might even be beyond the military power
of the United States to set right.

Yet,
this Israeli conundrum is not discussed inside the United States, where
- for the past three decades - American neocons have led a powerful
propaganda apparatus that demonizes any public figure who dares
question hard-line Israeli strategy.

Even
Americans with strong affection for Israel are denounced as
"anti-Semites" or "pro-terrorist" if they challenge the
Israel-is-always-right conventional wisdom that dominates modern
Washington, where Democrats and Republicans alike line up to pander to
the annual American-Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.

Former
President Jimmy Carter, for instance, has become almost a political
pariah although he arguably did more than any U.S. official to advance
Israel's security by negotiating the Camp David accords in 1978.

However,
it was that event - the agreement between Israel and Egypt, returning
the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a lasting peace commitment - that
marked the strategic turning point for both Israel and the United
States.

Begin's Fury

Though Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the peace deal, he was furious over the pressure Carter put on him.

Begin - who had led a Zionist terrorist group before Israel's
independence in 1948 and founded the right-wing Likud Party in 1973 -
decided he must take steps to prevent Carter from pushing for a broader
Israel-Arab peace deal in a potential second term.

Begin's views were described by Israeli intelligence and foreign affairs official David Kimche in his 1991 book, The Last Option.
Kimche wrote that Begin's government believed that Carter was overly
sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was conspiring to force Israel
to withdraw from the West Bank.

"Begin
was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in
Washington," Kimche wrote. "They had, moreover, the apparent blessing
of the two presidents, Carter and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, for
this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel
to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967,
including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian
state."

Kimche continued,
"This plan - prepared behind Israel's back and without her knowledge -
must rank as a unique attempt in United States's diplomatic history of
short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation."

Begin particularly dreaded the prospect of a second Carter presidential term.

"Unbeknownst
to the Israeli negotiators, the Egyptians held an ace up their sleeves,
and they were waiting to play it," Kimche wrote. "The card was
President Carter's tacit agreement that after the American presidential
elections in November 1980, when Carter expected to be re-elected for a
second term, he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement
of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to
fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby."

Begin's fear of Carter's reelection - combined with alarm over Carter's
perceived bungling in Iran where Islamic extremists took power in 1979
- set the stage for secret collaboration between Begin and the
Republican presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush,
according to another Israeli intelligence official, Ari Ben-Menashe.

In his 1992 memoir, Profits of War, Ben-Menashe said the view of Begin and other Likud leaders was one of contempt for Carter.

"Begin
loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,"
Ben-Menashe wrote. "As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from
Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian
issue hanging on Israel's back."

Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel as a
teen-ager, became part of a secret Israeli program to reestablish its
intelligence network in Iran after it had been decimated by the Islamic
revolution.

Ben-Menashe wrote
that Begin authorized shipments to Iran of small arms and some spare
parts, via South Africa, as early as September 1979. In November of
that year, events in Iran took another troubling turn when Islamic
radicals seized the U.S. Embassy and took 52 Americans hostage,
prompting a U.S. trade embargo.

Carter Catches On

By April 1980, however, Carter had learned about the covert Israeli
shipments, which included 300 tires for Iran's U.S.-supplied jet
fighters. That prompted an angry complaint from Carter to Begin.

"There
had been a rather tense discussion between President Carter and Prime
Minister Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear
that the Israelis had to stop that, and that we knew that they were
doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not
allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the
American people," Carter's press secretary Jody Powell told me.

"And it stopped," Powell said. At least, it stopped temporarily.

Questioned by congressional investigators a dozen years later, Carter
said he felt that by April 1980, "Israel cast their lot with Reagan,"
according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files
of a congressional investigation in 1992.

Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a "lingering
concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs."

Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski also recognized
the Israeli hostility. Brzezinski said the Carter White House was well
aware that the Begin government had "an obvious preference for a Reagan
victory."

Extensive evidence
now exists, too, that Begin's preference for a Reagan victory led
Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact
Iranian leaders behind Carter's back and delay release of the 52
American hostages until after Reagan defeated Carter in November 1980.

In his book and in sworn testimony about this so-called "October
Surprise" controversy, Ben-Menashe asserted that then-vice presidential
candidate George H.W. Bush personally participated in a key meeting in
October 1980 in Paris. Bush denied that claim at two press conferences
in 1992 but was never questioned under oath in any formal government
investigation.

More Evidence

Since then, additional evidence has emerged linking the senior Bush to
the clandestine Republican contacts with Iran during the 1980 campaign.
Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean said he was informed by a
well-placed Republican Party source in mid-October 1980 that Bush was
heading to Paris for a meeting with Iranians about the hostage crisis.

David Andelman, a former New York Times correspondent who was assisting
French intelligence chief Alexandre deMarenches on his memoir, said
deMarenches described arranging meetings between Republicans and
Iranians in Paris but insisted that be left out of the book for fear it
would hurt his friend, George H.W. Bush.

After checking its intelligence files at the request of the U.S.
Congress, the Russian government submitted an extraordinary report in
January 1993 that identified the senior George Bush as one of several
Republicans who negotiated with the Iranians in Paris during the 1980
campaign.

The congressional
task force that requested the Russian report as part of its "October
Surprise" investigation in 1992 never made the report public or even
disclosed its existence.

I
discovered the Russian document in a storage box left behind by the
task force, which - by the time the Russian report arrived - had
already decided to "debunk" the allegations of a Republican-Iranian
hostage deal. The task force cleared Bush without ever questioning him.

In 1993, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who followed
Begin to power in Israel, became another voice endorsing the
allegations of a Republican-Iranian "October Surprise" deal back in
1980.

When asked in an
interview whether there had been a Republican "October Surprise"
operation, Shamir responded, "Of course, it was." [For details on this
mystery, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]

The 52 American hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, just as Ronald Reagan was beginning his inaugural address.

Though the allegations of a Republican-Iranian deal have remained in
dispute, investigations into the controversy confirmed that Israel did
resume military shipments to Iran in 1981 with the knowledge of
Reagan-Bush officials who permitted the secret deliveries to go
forward.

By the mid-1980s,
the Reagan-Bush administration was playing both sides of the Iran-Iraq
war, funneling financial and some military support to Iraq while also
selling missiles to Iran, both through third countries such as Israel
and directly from U.S. stockpiles.

Rise of the Neoconservatives

The
election of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1980 also coincided
with the emergence of a political movement known as neoconservatism.

Many neoconservatives had been liberals or even leftists but broke with
the Democratic Party in the 1970s to favor a more aggressive policy
toward the Soviet Union. The neoconservatives also wanted a more
staunchly pro-Israeli position in the Middle East.

The Reagan-Bush administration rewarded the neocons for their support
in the 1980 campaign with their first taste of executive power, giving
them credentials that would prove crucial more than two decades later
in their ability to push through the Iraq War.

Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz became assistant secretaries of state
in the Reagan-Bush administration. Abrams now handles Middle East
affairs at the National Security Council, and Wolfowitz was an
architect of the Iraq policy as deputy secretary of defense. One of
Wolfowitz's proteges from the Reagan-Bush era, I. Lewis Libby Jr.,
became Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and a leading hawk
on Iraq.

Another key neocon
-- and Iraq policy architect -- was Richard Perle, an assistant
secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan. Perle's former counsel was
Douglas Feith, who returned as under secretary of defense for policy
under George W. Bush and strongly promoted the invasion of Iraq.

Besides bringing intellectual firepower to the Reagan-Bush team, the
neocons tapped into a powerful right-wing media apparatus that began to
take shape in the late 1970s and pushed propaganda that advocated a
more aggressive U.S. approach toward Israel's "terrorist" adversaries
in the Middle East.

Over the
ensuing three decades, the neocons - and their right-wing Republican
allies - came to dominate the Washington news media, especially on
Middle East policy. Critics of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians
were routinely denounced as "anti-Semites" and found little space on
the major editorial pages to argue their positions.

Once the neocons returned to power under George W. Bush (and especially
after the 9/11 attacks), the space for any debate shrank further, with
anyone who questioned hard-line policies toward Iraq or Israel's other
Muslim enemies called "soft on terror."

With debate suppressed, the neocons pushed for the invasion of Iraq
almost without opposition. Though the war was pitched as necessary to
protect the American people from Iraq's supposed stockpiles of WMD, the
invasion was viewed by many neocons as necessary to protect Israel's
long-term security.

The idea
was that by transforming Iraq into a permanent base for the American
military, U.S. power could be projected throughout the Middle East,
forcing "regime change" in Iran and Syria and undermining other groups
threatening Israel, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the
Palestinian territories.

The
neocons saw the U.S. military in Iraq as the guarantors against any
long-range assault on Israel. In other words, if Israel couldn't reach
some of those distant threats, the United States could.

The neocons also assumed that their tough-talking ways - especially
President Bush's then-popular swagger - would keep the American people
in line with Washington's Israel-is-always-right consensus.

Strategic Defeat

President Bush's strategic defeat in Iraq - defined by the new
"status-of-forces agreement" that prohibits permanent U.S. bases and
insists on a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011 - marks a major
turning point in the Middle East.

Plus, the American neocons have been severely damaged domestically by
their overreach in Iraq. Though they remain influential - especially
inside the national press corps with control of the Washington Post's
editorial pages and other influential media outlets - the neocons are
increasingly despised by the broad American public.

One of their chief advocates, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, went down to
decisive defeat on Nov. 4, 2008, to a political newcomer in Barack
Obama, despite right-wing and neocon smear campaigns emphasizing his
middle name "Hussein" and claiming that he is a secret Muslim who would
be sworn in using a Koran.

Though Obama has given the neocons some hope by handing the State
Department to the staunchly pro-Israel Hillary Clinton and by keeping
on Bush's Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the neocons will probably
never reclaim the kind of sweeping influence they had during George W.
Bush's presidency.

These new
facts-on-the-ground - both in the Middle East and in Washington - add
to the imperative for the Israeli people to reassess the three-decade
strategy of balking at reconciliation with their Arab neighbors and
counting on the neocon dominance of the U.S. political debates.

Israeli leaders might want to do whatever they can to turn back the
clock to the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter showed a possible route to
long-term security for Israel - by making respectful peace deals with
its Arab neighbors.

Rather
than trying to bomb and kill their way to security, Israeli leaders
might want to consider a new strategy that steps away from endless
confrontation with Arab enemies and instead seeks to integrate Israel
into the economic life of the Middle East, as a center of science,
technology, industry and finance.

Surely, this approach would not be easy. Given the past three decades
of tit-for-tat atrocities, there would be extremists on both sides who
would commit additional outrages to derail any progress.

It would have been much easier if Menachem Begin and his successors had
understood that some of their greatest American friends were those -
like Jimmy Carter - who recognized legitimate interests on both sides
of the conflict, rather than those - like George W. Bush - who embraced
the most extreme neoconservative positions.

So, whatever the outcome of Israel's Gaza offensive, it cannot disguise
how untenable Israel's long-term position has become.

Even
if Hamas's little short-range missiles can be silenced for the
time-being, the hatreds will continue to fester. The Arab Street will
turn, increasingly, against authoritarian Arab leaders in countries
such as Egypt and Jordan who have taken the most moderate positions
regarding Israel's right to exist.

And
beyond Israel's immediate neighbors - assuming those mutual hatreds are
not defused - Muslim extremists will eventually get hold of a weapon of
mass destruction, possibly in Pakistan if its current fragile civilian
government falls. At some point, someone will have a missile or some
other means of delivering a powerful weapon against Israel.

Meanwhile,
in Washington, Bush and his neocon advisers may have imagined
themselves ensuring security for Israel by taking aggressive action
against its regional adversaries but have instead worsened Israel's
predicament. Now, the neocons find themselves widely discredited inside
the U.S. political process.

It
is this combination of realities - Bush's failed adventurism in the
Middle East and the decline of the neoncons at home - that could become
the impetus for a new and serious peace initiative in the Middle East,
as the best hope for Israel's success and survival.

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