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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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.