Will Jews be scapegoats for Iran attack?

Leon Panetta’s comments about Israel had some uncomfortable anti-Semitic undertones.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
As next year’s presidential election approaches, US President Barack Obama’s policies have moved in a more pro-Israel direction and his supporters have been desperately trying to make the case that he is Israel’s friend.
Last week’s comments by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have done much to undermine that case, however, and appeared to make Israel the scapegoat for any negative consequences that could arise from the Jewish state having the audacity to defend itself against the existential threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Worse than the actual comments were the disturbing anti-Semitic undertones inherent in Panetta’s remarks. The secretary warned of the potential negative consequences to the world economy of a military strike against Iran, but he only raised the danger to the world economy before the discussion with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The impact on the economy would apply to any country attacking Iran, but the timing of his remarks were clearly aimed at Israel as that meeting took place amid a flurry of reports about Israel considering an imminent attack.
Panetta also suggested an attack on Iran would have “a serious impact on US forces in the region.” This comment appears to reflect the view of Arabists within the Obama administration that Israeli actions and US support for Israel endanger Americans. This noxious idea surfaced earlier in a Pentagon paper submitted to Congress, which said the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the “perception of US favoritism for Israel” were responsible for anti-American sentiment.
The truth, however, is that US troops are targets of Islamic extremists and other anti-American elements in the Middle East because of who they are, what they represent and their presence in the region, not because of anything Israel says or does. Shouts of “Death to America” in Tehran, Iranian aid to insurgents in Iraq and plots against a Saudi diplomat in Washington have nothing to do with Israel.
Setting aside Israel for a moment, Panetta’s comments also undermined US policy toward Iran. In the past, the president had said that all options were “on the table” for stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Now, his defense secretary has taken the most serious threat out of the equation.
If you combine jettisoning the military option, with the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the refusal to impose crippling sanctions on Iran, you are left with a policy that poses no danger to the Iranian regime or any incentive at all to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
THIRD, IT pays to note that the countries most scared of Iran are its Arab neighbors. As we learned from Wikileaks, it is not Israel that has been demanding military action, but rather Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are not worried about the impact on the world economy or US forces, they care only about ensuring their royal heads stay attached to their royal shoulders.
Meanwhile, some analysts argue that Israel could conceivably live with a nuclear Iran because of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Even if you ignore the theological views of Iranian leaders that suggest a willingness to launch a jihad against Israel without worrying about the consequences, or the possibility expressed by some Iranians that they could win a nuclear war with Israel, a nuclear Iran would create a broader problem for Israel and the international community because of proliferation. If Iran gets the bomb, its neighbors will seek one for deterrence.
Will Israel eventually be expected to deter multiple nuclear powers? Would a nuclear Middle East be in the US interest?
Anyone knowledgeable about the Iranian threat understands that the military option is problematic and that it could have serious consequences. The question is whether those consequences outweigh the danger posed by a nuclear Iran.
Jews have been blamed for the world’s ills, especially economic ones, for centuries. The suggestion that by defending itself from extermination the Jewish state is somehow responsible at the current time for leading the world toward nuclear Armageddon is reprehensible and odious.
Israel is the only country Iran has threatened to attack and destroy, and it has done so repeatedly. Jews have some experience with genocidal threats, as well as experience with relying on the good will of the international community to respond effectively to those threats. It is understandable if they are not willing to entrust their future survival to the United Nations, the Europeans, or the United States.
In contrast to 1981, when prime minister Menachem Begin decided Israel could not tolerate a nuclear Iraq, Israel has so far held its fire. Jerusalem has not taken action yet, hoping rather that the international community will take effective measures to stop the Iranian nuclear program. At some point, Israel’s leaders will have to decide if they can continue to wait.
Until that time, it pays to recall the initial reactions to Begin’s historic decision, and subsequent history.
Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor was condemned by the United States and the rest of the world, but a decade later, the US defense secretary thanked Israel for that military strike and said it likely saved American lives during the first Gulf War.
Panetta would do well to reflect on that history before he speaks again.
The writer is a foreign policy analyst whose latest book is The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East (Harper- Collins Publishers).