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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?