Dispatches From The Edge: Syria and the Neo-Cons; J Street Launches

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday May 08, 2008 - 10:24:00 AM

A “very odd affair” is how the Financial Times (FT) characterized the Bush Administration’s release of intelligence charging that the Syrian building bombed by the Israelis last Sept. 6 was a North Korean-designed nuclear reactor just weeks from being operational.  

Indeed it was “odd,” and sorting through the motives behind the whole business is a little like trying to scope out the politics of Byzantium. 

The “evidence” that Syria was building a nuclear reactor was a video that mixed still photos, drawings, and a dramatic voice-over that the New York Times (NYT) said gave it the “feel of a cold-war era newsreel about the Korean War.” 

Among other things, the video showed an undated photo of a Korean manager of that country’s Yongbyong nuclear plant with the head of Syria’s nuclear agency. 

The presentation hardly drew rave reviews. Even U.S. intelligence officials admitted that the evidence that Syria was building a nuclear weapons complex was “low confidence.” In intelligence jargon, “low confidence” is about two notches above “alien abduction.” 

As the FT pointed out, “the U.S. claims raises many questions.” Where was Syria going to get the fuel? Where were the re-processing facilities to make plutonium? Where is the evidence for a weapons program? How come both the U.S. and the Israelis bypassed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? 

Some nuclear experts thought that the building might have been a reactor (though most questioned whether it was ready to come on-line), but others were doubtful. One anonymous nuclear physicist close to the IAEA told Agence France Presse that the walls shown in the video “do not look like the ones needed for a plutonium reactor.” He said that such walls “need a lot of piping, and there was nothing like that in the pictures.” 

He also debunked the charge that the building was a copy of the Yongbyon reactor. “It’s [Yongbyon] 40 years old. We have much better technology than that, and I don’t think the Syrians are stupid.” 

Syria’s UN Ambassador, Imad Moustapha, called the video “fantasy,” and said that the Bush Administration has a “record about fabricating stories about other countries’ WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). Syria said it would fully cooperate with an IAEA investigation. 

The video was generally seen as an effort by Vice President Dick Cheney to derail the six-party talks aimed at disarming North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and that certainly was the motivation for some of the players. For one, former UN Ambassador and State Department official John Bolton, who has been leading a campaign aimed at stopping the talks. 

“Making public the pictures is likely to inflame the North Koreans,” one “senior administration official” told the NYT. “And that is what the opponents of this whole operation want because they think the North Koreans will stalk off.” 

But there were other dogs in this fight. 

One is a group of neo-conservatives, including William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Ledeen of National Review, and Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Elliot Abrams—all former or current Administration officials—who have lobbied for overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  

Syria is well aware that it is in Washington’s crosshairs. “Syria wants to see [itself] through this U.S. administration without being attacked,” Alastair Crooke, director of the Conflict Forum, told the FT. “It is trying to wiggle through a difficult process and keep itself intact.” 

However, the Syria revelations may have more to do with regime change in Tel Aviv than regime change in Damascus. 

Richard Silverstein of The Guardian (UK) reports that, starting last year, secret talks between Syria and Israel mapped out an agreement that would return the Golan Heights to Damascus in exchange for peace. Israel and Syria have been officially at war since 1967. 

According to Syrian Cabinet Minister Buthaina Shaaban, Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert first made the proposal in meetings with the Turkish government. Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Elizer confirmed that to Israel Radio: “Every effort is being made for Syria to sit at the negotiating table in order to sign a peace treaty.”  

Peace between Israel and Syria is not on the neo-cons’ agenda for the Middle East, and what better way to derail it than to accuse Syria of trying to make nuclear weapons? Kristol and company know that, were Olmert to falter, right-wing hawk and former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is waiting in the wings. 

Netanyahu and the neo-cons are old buddies. A number of them, including Perle, Abrams and Wolfowitz, played an important role in Netanyahu’s last administration, which was marked by widespread violence and brutality in the Occupied Territories, as well as deep and painful cuts in Israeli social services.  

According to Silverstein, the neo-cons want Olmert to fail, Netanyahu to take over, followed by war with Syria. “The neo-cons would rather have a war that bled an ally than a peace that rewarded their foes. It’s called cutting off your friend’s nose to spite his face,” he says. 


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New kid on the block? That would be “J Street,” a political action committee that describes itself as “the political action arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the PAC’s executive director, told Laura Rozen of Mother Jones that “We believe the majority of American Jews and many other Americans friendly and supportive to Israel really do recognize that a policy both here and there that would be geared toward really pushing for a two-state solution is in Israel’s and the U.S.’s best interests.” 

One of the lobby’s goals is to change the tone of the discussion about Israel and Palestine. “Somehow, for American politicians or activists to express opposition to settlement expansion—or support for active American diplomacy, dialogue with Syria or engagement with Iran—has become subversive and radical, inviting vile, hateful emails and a place on public lists of Israel-haters and anti-Semites,” Ben-Ami recently wrote in a column to the Forward. 

“In our name,” says Ben-Ami, “PACs and other political associations have embraced the most radically right-wing figures on the American scene, from Rick Santorum and Trent Lott to Tom DeLay and George Bush—all in the guise of being pro-Israel.” 

The group is a self-described “centrist” organization. While it calls for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, it would incorporate many of the big West Bank settlements into Israel. It supports dividing Jerusalem, but on what it calls “demographic realities,” which means essentially accepting what Judith Norman and Alistair Welchman of Jewish Peace News calls “Israeli ethnic cleansing.” 

J Street steers away from any discussion of international law and, so far, has shown little concern for the current conditions for the Palestinians created by the occupation. And it supports the continued flow of U.S. military aid to the Tel Aviv government. 

Other Jewish American peace groups were positive, but careful. 

“I don’t think it is going to have any impact now, but it is a good thing to have something like this going, so that when the next president comes in, J Street, the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), and the rest of us will be in a better position to influence the next president,” M.J. Rosenberg, policy director of the left-leaning IPF told the Forward. 

One impact that J Street will have is to help shield candidates who call for a two-state solution and dividing Jerusalem from the charge of anti-Semitism.  

J Street has reportedly raised about $800,000, hardly competition for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) $100 million war chest. But while AIPAC is the 800 lb gorilla, it is one that rules more by intimidation than persuasion. Polls consistently show that American Jews are more closely aligned to the politics of J Street than those of AIPAC, but they have generally remained silent, in part because AIPAC is a “take-no-prisoners” organization. 

It’s a small start, but then David had a small rock.