U.S. policies have made Israel less safe, experts say


McClatchy Newspapers

JERUSALEM - After years of supporting the Bush administration's policy in the Middle East, a growing number of Israelis are openly criticizing the United States for creating more, not less, danger for Israel.

Israeli experts contend that American policies have destabilized Iraq, emboldened anti-Western forces from Iran to Lebanon and paved the way for militant Islamists to gain control of the Palestinian Authority.

"The threats to Middle East security and stability worsened in 2006," experts at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies recently warned. "The American failure in Iraq has hurt the standing of the U.S. in the Middle East."

Perhaps most strikingly, in their annual evaluation of the situation, the Israeli analysts concluded that it was better for the United States to get out of Iraq than to add troops, as President Bush is proposing.

"There's no Israeli interest being served by continued American presence in Iraq," said Mark A. Heller, a Jaffee Center researcher who helped produce the group's annual "Middle East Strategic Balance" report.

"There's a basic overall interest in not having the United States perceived as a weak or failing power," Heller said. "But any initial goals that might have been served by getting rid of Saddam Hussein have long since been banked."

The Bush administration is "simply discredited in the region as a player," Yossi Alpher said. Alpher, a former head of the Jaffee Center, now serves as co-director of www.bitterlemons.org, a joint Palestinian-Israeli Web site financed by private donations and a grant from the European Union.

The conclusion that the United States has made Israel less safe and the growing criticism of Bush administration policy are ironic, to put it mildly.

Securing Israel, America's closest ally in the region, was one of the Bush administration's justifications for toppling Saddam and for promoting democracy throughout the region. Israel has been unwavering in its support of U.S. initiatives since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, from ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan to toppling Saddam and threatening Iran and Syria. The former Bush administration officials and advisers who pushed those initiatives are among Israel's staunchest American supporters.

But a growing number of Israeli experts now believe that U.S. policy has backfired. The threat from Saddam's army has been replaced by the dangers of a volatile civil war that threatens to spill over Iraq's borders. By ousting both Saddam and the Taliban, the United States eliminated two major counterbalances to Iran, which now enjoys growing power and influence.

"When the United States removed Saddam Hussein from power, people were happy here because he represented a major threat," said Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. "But that elevated the Iranian threat, and Iran is the most dangerous country in the world."

Israeli leaders now consider Iran to be their biggest and most pressing danger. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, constantly antagonizes Israel by questioning whether the Holocaust happened and suggesting that the Jewish nation will one day be wiped off the map.

Israel is expected to push the United States to ensure that Iran faces tough international sanctions for pressing ahead with its nuclear program - a drive that Israel fears could provide one of its most vocal adversaries with a nuclear bomb.

Should the sanctions effort fall short, some Israeli leaders suggest that their nation is prepared to launch a military strike on Iran, much the way it did in 1981 when it crippled a nuclear reactor outside Baghdad.

"In real terms, it is obvious that Israel has military options vis a vis Iran, and it would consider them, should diplomacy fail," said Uzi Arad, a former director of intelligence with Israel's Mossad who now serves as head of the Institute for Policy Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.

Many experts question whether an Israeli or U.S. military strike could seriously damage Iran's nuclear program, but some analysts say the threat could encourage Iran to negotiate.

Some argue that without the threat from Saddam, the international community is better positioned to deal with Iran.

"In the long run I think this will help peace and security in the Middle East," said Danny Ayalon, who served as Israel's ambassador to the United States during the invasion of Iraq. "The fact that we do not have Saddam Hussein there allows the world to focus on the ayatollahs and Ahmadinejad."

Others, however, fear that America's Iraq obsession prevents it from fully confronting Iran, which also backs Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Hezbollah fought Israel last summer in a 34-day war that damaged Israel's image as an unbeatable military force.

"With American attention so much focused on Iraq, it comes at the expense of its ability to blunt the slow Iranian progression towards nuclear capability," former Mossad official Arad said.

Iran also has vowed to provide more funding for Hamas, the militant group committed to Israel's destruction that won last year's election to run the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank.

For many Israelis, the ascension of Hamas is a bitter example of the Bush administration's flawed attempt to impose democratic principles on the Middle East.

"This is a big failure," Gilboa said. "I think that Americans too often equate democracy with elections, and they don't understand that elections should be the last step, not the first one."

Israel tried to delay last year's Palestinian elections when Hamas agreed to take part. Israelis leaders warned that they'd never negotiate with a group committed to their nation's destruction.

But American officials worked with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to ensure that the election took place as planned.

When Hamas won a majority and took control of the government, Israel, the United States and the international community cut off their financial support to the Palestinian Authority, a move that hobbled the authority.

International isolation, however, has failed to compel Hamas to make significant concessions. Now the United States is launching a renewed effort to empower Abbas, the moderate Palestinian president whose weakened Fatah Party lost to Hamas last year.

The United States is preparing to provide more monetary and military support for Abbas, a step that some worry could end up quickening the day when the near-daily clashes between Hamas and Fatah loyalists devolve into civil war.

Abbas is one ally whom Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hopes to enlist during her visit to the Middle East this weekend as she works to create a coalition of moderate Middle East leaders who share U.S. fears that militant anti-Western forces are on the rise.

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert backs that effort. But Rice is likely to face greater skepticism in the other countries in the region.

Last summer, both Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney found little appetite for the idea when they broached it with other Middle East leaders during Israel's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Heller suggested that American foreign policy once again had been undermined by the country's overconfidence.

"It's kind of a flattering image that Americans have of themselves and, frankly, that everyone has of America, that somehow the United States is capable of doing anything it sets its mind to and all it needs is political will," he said. "I think it's a total misreading of reality."