There is an old joke about an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German, and a Jew who are asked to write an essay about an elephant. The Englishman writes about “The Elephant and the British Empire.” The Frenchman writes about “The Love Life of the Elephant.” The pedantic German writes a large treatise on “The Toenail of the Elephant.” And the Jew writes on “The Elephant and the Jewish Problem.”

It’s a Jewish joke dating back to the time when the fate of the insecure Jewish community in Europe depended very much on political and social changes in the surrounding non-Jewish environment. It pokes fun at the tendency of anxious Jews at that time to assess the latest news from this or that world capital—the Russian czar has the flu, the price of grain is going up, red shoes are becoming more fashionable—by whether or not it was “good for the Jews.” When Jewish survival was at stake and inextricably tied to events beyond the community’s control, it was not surprising that Jews would study almost anything—so why not an elephant?—based on its effect upon, and attitude toward, the so-called Jewish Problem. Was the elephant with us—or was it against us?

Native Israeli Jews who pride themselves on being more independent and self-confident than the supposedly wimpy “diaspora Jews” insist that they have rid themselves of that old obsession. The classic Zionist ethos has taught the New Jew to become more assertive, self-governing, and self-reliant. With their own sources of political, economic, and military power, Jews in Israel were expected to be able to control their destiny irrespective of whether the czar had the flu, the price of grain was going up, or red shoes were in fashion. In the words of Israel’s founding father, the late Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, “It doesn’t matter what the gentiles say; what matters is what the Jews do.”

Ben-Gurion was arguing that unlike their ancestors in the diaspora, Israelis have ceased to be passive actors on history’s stage who respond to what the “other” does or does not do. The Jews in Israel have become active players who can affect history and base their relationship with the gentiles on a sense of reciprocity. It is the elephant who would end up writing an essay on “The Jew and the Elephantine Problem.”

But Zionism was based on romantic expectations about one’s chosen group’s place in the world. In reality, much of the history of Zionism and Israel—from the 1917 Balfour Declaration to the 2000 second Intifada—reflected a continuing obsession with what the world does and thinks. In fact, Ben-Gurion made his comments, deriding the significance of the attitude of non-Jews to the Zionist project, in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Sinai in the 1956 Arab-Israeli War, which he portrayed as a unilateralist Israeli action aimed at protecting the nation’s core interests. He forgot to mention that the Israelis would not have attacked Egypt without the support of Great Britain and France. Moreover, a few months later, Ben-Gurion was forced by the U.S. and the UN to withdraw Israeli troops from the occupied territory.

What passes these days for foreign news in much of the Israeli media could come under the heading “The Elephant and the Israeli Problem,” with the U.S. playing the role of the elephant as Israelis try to deconstruct the latest development in Washington based on whether or not it is “good for the Jews.” In that context, White House aides, U.S. lawmakers, and American pundits who are Jewish are usually identified as such because that fact suggests that they are—or should be—predisposed to be sympathetic to the Jewish state. Similarly, from the coverage in the Israeli press of American presidential races, you would have to conclude that the major candidates are running for office in Israel. Any insignificant comment a candidate or his lowest-ranking aide makes about the Middle East—or the number of times they have visited Israel—is listed and analyzed by the Israelis. During the 2004 presidential race, for example, front-page headlines in Israeli newspapers pointed to the fact that Kerry’s brother Cameron converted to Judaism, the implication being that he would help stir the policy of the Kerry administration in a pro-Israeli direction.

My guess is that in Italy, Poland, and Greece, and in other countries that value their relationship with Washington, press coverage of the U.S., including presidential races, is not very different. I recall reading in French newspapers quite a lot about Kerry’s French connection, including the fact that one of his relatives was a French Green Party activist, and it was not surprising that George Stephanopoulos became a celebrity in Greece during the Clinton administration.

The irony is that the kind of obsession that Israeli Jews have with the status of the Jewish state in Washington would probably be depicted as crude anti-Semitism if it were exhibited by American politicians and pundits. One could imagine the outcry in Washington if a U.S. lawmaker were to identify, say, Sen. Barbara Boxer as Jewish and imply that her religious beliefs affect her attitude towards Israel. Or if an American journalist would suggest that the fact that Vice President Cheney’s aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby is Jewish colors his approach to the Middle East conflict. Or if American pundits would propose on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq that Israel and her American supporters were backing such a move because they believed it would advance the strategic interests of the Jewish state.

In fact, in the weeks leading up to the coalition attack on Iraq, Israeli officials and analysts were doing exactly that and were not even trying to hide their glee over American plans to conquer Mesopotamia. “Enthusiastic IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] Awaits War in Iraq,” screamed the headline in the respected Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Feb. 17, 2003. “The military and political leadership yearns for war in Iraq, seeing it as an opportunity to win the war of attrition with the Palestinians,” reported diplomatic editor Aluf Benn, who continued:

Senior IDF officers and those close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, such as National Security Advisor Ephraim Halevy, paint a rosy picture of the wonderful future Israel can expect after the war. They envision a domino effect, with the fall of Saddam Hussein followed by that of Israel’s other enemies: Arafat, Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, the ayatollah in Iran and maybe even Muhammar Gadaffi. Along with these leaders, will disappear terror and weapons of mass destruction.

Benn also noted that there was “excitement” in the IDF’s planning department over the standoff between the U.S. and its NATO allies: “A paper distributed to the army’s upper echelons even spoke of an opportunity to ‘remove the pro-Palestinian Europeans from the Middle East.’” Israeli officials concluded, according to Benn, that the U.S. would “punish the Europeans for their back-stabbing on the road to Baghdad, and will no longer ask them for input regarding Israeli concessions.”

Benn quotes Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, Coordinator of Government Activities in the West Bank and Gaza, voicing the Israeli army’s belief that a U.S.-led war for regime change in Iraq would establish a precedent for, in Gilad’s words, “the removal of other dictators closer to us who use violence and terror.” Reflecting official and public Israeli attitudes at that time, polls indicated that a large majority of Israelis cheered the removal of Saddam Hussein by the Americans.
But after American critics of the planned war against Iraq raised these same points, suggesting that neocons were pressing for Saddam’s ouster because they were hoping that it would help secure Israeli interests—much along the lines drawn by outspoken Israeli government and military officials—mainstream American media types seemed to insist that their countrymen must not speak as frankly as the Israelis. When then-New York Times columnist (and now editor) Bill Keller wrote about the possible effects of the invasion of Iraq on Israeli interests, he made it clear that he wasn’t trying to advance “one of the more enduring conspiracy theories of the moment, the notion that we are about to send a quarter of a million American soldiers to war for the sake of Israel” and he even chose an ironic title for his piece, “Is It Good for the Jews?” But an alternative title, “Is It Good for Israel?” would certainly have captured the gist of his column—that the war was in Israel’s interest.

But was it? That is certainly not the conclusion that you would draw after skimming through analyses issued by Israeli experts since the collapse of Saddam’s statue in downtown Baghdad and which suggest that America has been fighting the right war (against terrorism) in the wrong place (Iraq). “The war in Iraq did not damage international terror groups but instead distracted the United States from confronting other hotbeds of Islamic militancy and actually ‘created momentum’ for many terrorists,” the Associated Press recently reported of a study conducted by “a top Israeli security think tank.” The Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University said that far from undermining Islamic militants, the Iraq War “has created momentum for many terrorist elements, but chiefly al-Qaida and its affiliates.”

The center’s director, Shai Feldman, suggested in the report that the vast amount of money and effort the United States has poured into Iraq has deflected attention from other centers of terrorism, such as Afghanistan. The focus of U.S. intelligence upon Iraq “has to be at the expense of being able to follow strategic dangers in other parts of the world,” he wrote. The bottom line of this and other similar Israeli studies is that Iran, and not the United States, has emerged from the war in Iraq as the major winner.

Even more intriguing has been the way Israeli officials and pundits have scoffed at the Wilsonian fantasies of the neocons—fantasies of using the invasion of Iraq as the first stage of “democratizing” the Middle East. Not only have most Israeli experts suggested that such a scheme is impractical, they have also argued that the collapse of authoritarian regimes in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan is bound to bring to power anti-Israeli and anti-American forces. As Israeli leaders see it, the Jewish state would have a hard time adjusting to a democratic Arab world in which public opinion, rather than centralized rulers, determined policy.

Yehezkel Dror, a political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, recently related the Israeli establishment’s view: “We’re all for democracy, but let us imagine democracy in Egypt or Jordan. Will it strengthen their peace with Israel?” Dror and his colleagues have concluded that the answer to this question is a clear “No!” That explains why Newsweek characterized the reputation of Natan Sharansky—George W. Bush’s favorite author and the prophet of Middle Eastern democracy—in Israel as that of a “scorned idealist.”

“I’m very frustrated,” Sharansky told the international edition of Newsweek. “My ideas are not taken seriously at all [in Israel].” Why? Because they are perceived as “too disconnected from the harsh Middle East reality,” Sharansky explained, noting that most Israelis believe that democracy in the Arab world could easily translate into even greater hostility toward Israel.

In short, there is a growing recognition in Israel that the Iraq War was not so good for the Jews. It has diverted attention and resources from the War on Terror and threatened to unleash anti-Israeli and anti-American forces in the Middle East—such as a Shi’ite clerical government in Iraq that could become an ally of a radical Shi’ite, nuclear-armed Iran, which would pose more of a long-term threat to the strategic interests of the Jewish state than the militarily weak Saddam ever did.

Israel’s enthusiastic support for American intervention in Iraq was easy to understand: an opportunistic response by a client state that had hoped to get a free ride on a successful military operation against an anti-Israeli Arab state. “Unlike during the Roman Empire, this time the current reigning empire is with us,” explained Likud politician Benjamin Netanyahu in the immediate aftermath of the successful U.S. military operation in Iraq. But what many Israelis failed to take into consideration was that the American Empire could fail. “What is interesting is that among the many scholars preoccupied with the war in Iraq, not a single one has discussed the possible outcome of an American withdrawal, in the wake of faulty handling of the war,” Ze’ev Schiff, Ha’aretz’s military analyst, wrote recently. If that happens, Israelis’ “relatively optimistic intelligence assessment regarding strategic threats to the country would be eroded,” he concluded.

The neoconservative strategic vision assumes that what is good for America is good for Israel, that a global and democratic American empire in control of the Middle East will help preserve Israel’s interests while a strong and democratic Israel will help secure American concerns in the region. Neocons consider this an axiom and are amazed that most American Jews, most of whom did not vote for Bush in the last election, don’t share their perspective. “The surprising thing is not that there are so many Jews who are neocons but that there are so many who are not,” complained leading neocon and former Pentagon official Douglas Feith in an interview with The New Yorker early this year.

Many Americans concluded long ago that Israeli and American strategic interests are not always compatible and that the strong ties with the Jewish state are hurting the U.S. position in the Middle East. Some Israelis are now asking themselves whether they can count on the long-term support of an American Empire that, not unlike the Roman one, is bound to decline and shed its commitments in the Middle East.

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Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author, most recently, of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.