What role did Israel play in the run-up to the Iraq war?

Blair, Bush, Chilcot and the Israelis.

I haven't been able to bring myself to blog on the Iraq inquiry since last Friday, when we were all transfixed by Tony Blair's defiant and unrepentant testimony. Sir John Chilcot and his team of long-winded, deferential establishment worthies did a stunningly inept and incomplete job, allowing our former premier -- as is his nature -- to duck, weave, dodge, distort and evade.

I felt like throwing my remote control at the television.

Here's Bob Marshall-Andrews, Labour MP and Queen's Counsel, writing in the Guardian:

Answer after answer descended into self-serving waffle of total irrelevance. His love of America, his closeness to President Clinton, his admiration for the armed forces, the indescribable nastiness of Saddam, "the calculus of risk" (what?), his experience as a junior barrister, even his silly asides to Fern Britton expanded endlessly to suffocate meaning. No one demanded a straight answer. No one deplored the obvious strategy of delay.

In the morass, essential questions surfaced briefly, were avoided and remained, amazingly, ignored. Question: "Had President Chirac phoned to say that his position was being misrepresented out of context?" Answer: "I remember speaking to Chirac on a number of occasions." Yes? And? What is the answer? We will never know, as the examination drifted gently on to another topic, and obscurity remained.

The most unforgivable, outrageous and bizarre moment of the day occurred when Blair, for some inexplicable reason, volunteered the following revelation about his all-important meeting with George W Bush in Crawford, Texas, back in April 2002:

As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this.

Blair and Bush had "conversations" with "Israelis" while they were alone in Crawford, having a behind-closed-doors, private meeting about Iraq? Which Israelis? Were they present, or on the phone? Did the Israelis express a view about Saddam Hussein, WMDs or "regime change"? How many other Iraq-related meetings or discussions were the Israelis involved in?

The answer to all these questions is: DUNNO! The committee members didn't ask him. There were no follow-ups. They simply . . . moved on.

And so, too, did the media. I haven't yet seen the "Israelis at Crawford" story reported in any national newspaper. Apart from a brief reference by Seumas Milne on the Guardian's Comment is Free website, there has been no coverage of this story in the mainstream media.

So were the Israelis agitating for war against Iraq, and was Israel a factor in the Bush administration's decision to unilaterally and illegally invade Iraq in 2003? Opinion has always been split on the anti-war side. But Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in their much-discussed London Review of Books essay "The Israel Lobby", back in 2006, made a persuasive case for the argument that Israel, and the pro-Israeli lobby, were key players on the road to war:

Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical. Some Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. According to Philip Zelikow, a former member of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now a counsellor to Condoleezza Rice, the "real threat" from Iraq was not a threat to the United States.

The "unstated threat" was the "threat against Israel", Zelikow told an audience at the University of Virginia in September 2002. "The American government," he added, "doesn't want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell."

On 16 August 2002, 11 days before Dick Cheney kicked off the campaign for war with a hardline speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Washington Post reported that "Israel is urging US officials not to delay a military strike against Iraq's Saddam Hussein". By this point, according to Sharon, strategic co-ordination between Israel and the US had reached "unprecedented dimensions", and Israeli intelligence officials had given Washington a variety of alarming reports about Iraq's WMD programmes.

As one retired Israeli general later put it, "Israeli intelligence was a full partner to the picture presented by American and British intelligence regarding Iraq's non-conventional capabilities."

Israeli leaders were deeply distressed when Bush decided to seek Security Council authorisation for war, and even more worried when Saddam agreed to let UN inspectors back in. "The campaign against Saddam Hussein is a must," Shimon Peres told reporters in September 2002. "Inspections and inspectors are good for decent people, but dishonest people can overcome easily inspections and inspectors."

At the same time, Ehud Barak wrote a New York Times op-ed warning that "the greatest risk now lies in inaction". His predecessor as prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, published a similar piece in the Wall Street Journal, entitled: "The Case for Toppling Saddam". "Today nothing less than dismantling his regime will do," he declared. "I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis in supporting a pre-emptive strike against Saddam's regime." Or as Ha'aretz reported in February 2003, "the military and political leadership yearns for war in Iraq".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear