Local rabbis conflicted over U.S. war in Iraq

Gerald Raiskin may be the only rabbi in the Bay Area to have ever fired a rifle in anger. But he's not sure he's in favor of sending American troops into Iraq to do the same.

Like many local rabbis, Raskin — a combat infantryman in Europe during World War II — finds himself torn over whether the United States should go to war in the Mideast.

"I'm not a pacifist but I hate getting into wars," said Raiskin, the spiritual leader of Burlingame's Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom for the past 46 years.

Saddam Hussein "is an evil man. But there are a lot of evil men out there in the world. Many countries have people being killed and tortured, and not just by Saddam Hussein."

On the other hand, "At some points, I feel very strongly that a pre-emptive attack to get rid of Hussein is important not only for the U.S. but for Israel."

Raiskin encapsulates the feeling of many rabbis of all ages and affiliations contacted by the Bulletin: They can come up with a number of reasons why they'd like to see the tyrannical Saddam gone, but they aren't sure the United States has made a case for doing so, especially now.

"In my own life I like to finish one thing before I start another. I'd very much like us to finish nation-building in Afghanistan before starting on a grand scale in Iraq. I'd like to see us finish with Osama bin Laden before we begin with the new threat, or the old new threat," said Rabbi Jacob Traub of San Francisco's Orthodox Adath Israel.

"I'm upset the current administration is playing everything so close to the vest, as if people out here are not smart enough to realize what they want to do. So they go out of their way to paint [Saddam] as Hitler and try to forge links that president told the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26 that the overthrow of the Iraqi president would promote Israeli-Palestinian peace by ridding Palestinian terrorists of a major source of funding.

"Without this outside support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders," Bush said. "True leaders who strive for peace, true leaders who faithfully serve the people. A Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful state that abandons forever the use of terror."

Bush called on Israel to work toward a peace agreement and — "as progress is made toward peace" — to end all settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The president also called on Arab states to oppose terrorism and "state clearly they will live in peace with Israel."

In a landmark speech in June, Bush called on Palestinians to replace President Yasser Arafat with leaders uncompromised by terrorism, saying Palestinians needed to curb violence against Israel before they could achieve statehood.

While that speech remains the cornerstone of White House policy on the Middle East, critics argue that Bush has not fleshed it out. They say he has repeatedly stalled the presentation of the "road map" toward Israeli-Palestinian peace that is being prepared by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

State Department sources say last week's speech was part of the White House's efforts to court the international community to support a U.S.-led war on Iraq. The speech also was intended as recognition of positive Palestinian steps — such as Arafat's pledge to appoint a prime minister, and new financial controls recently instituted in the Palestinian Authority.

"It wasn't lip service," a State Department official said. "We've been seeing progress on the Palestinian side, some indication that maybe the ideals are starting to take hold."

But David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be No. 5 on the Bush administration's foreign policy priority list after an Iraq war. Ahead of it are stabilizing Iraq, prosecuting the war on terrorism, curtailing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — especially from North Korea — and helping spread democracy in the Middle East.

That's not even counting domestic concerns such as a weak economy and the requisite focus on Bush's own campaign as the 2004 election approaches.

"This administration is going to have a full plate," Makovsky said. Therefore, the administration is likely to expend the political capital needed for momentum on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking only if it sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

That, Makovsky argues, is dependent on cooperation from the Arab world to push for new Palestinian leadership and to pressure the Palestinian Authority to take reforms seriously.

"This isn't Bill Clinton, who will want to run off to a summit," he said. "Before inserting the prestige of his office, Bush will want to see signs that he can succeed."

But Bush's promises of increased engagement after a war mean that the White House will have to do something, Makovsky said. If the time isn't ripe for a major effort, the White House may suffice with throwing some money at the problem in the form of increased aid — or it may convene an international conference — steps that aren't likely to produce real progress.

However, Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA, says it's disingenuous to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as only one of several priorities for the Middle East because solving the conflict is central to achieving the administration's other goals in the region.

The missing element is not Arab support, he said. Instead, he contends the problem is the United States, which has not followed through on its declared goals.

"The president has had an extremely good declaratory policy," said Spiegel, a scholar with the pro-peace Israel Policy Forum. "The problem is the actions have been anemic at best, and he really hasn't delivered on the promises of the speeches."

For example, he added, the administration hasn't had an envoy on the ground in the region for almost a year.

Jon Alterman, director of Middle East programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says neither Israelis nor Palestinians are willing to change their political climates to make them more conducive to peace.

Alterman thinks it unlikely the United States will make a bold move on the Israeli-Palestinian front unless there is a change in Palestinian leadership — or unless Israel and the White House alter their view that such a change in leadership is essential for progress.

Given those parameters, Alterman said last week's speech was intended mostly to appease an international audience.

"When you talk to a foreign audience, you get a lot of exasperation," he said. "A lot of folks in the international community are incensed that we see Iraq as the prime threat to peace and stability in the Middle East, while they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the threat to peace and stability in the Middle East."

Bush, who hopes to build international support for a U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, is believed to be talking of long-term progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front to get more countries on board for an attack on Iraq.

There is some legitimacy to Bush's claims, Alterman said: Many in the administration believe Saddam's overthrow would show U.S. resolve to combat weapons proliferation and rogue regimes. That could make it easier for pro-democracy leaders to emerge in the Middle East.

If that does happen, the White House could play a dramatic role. But many are skeptical that the situation will unfold in quite that way.

Some wonder if the White House has a clear understanding of the probable political dynamics in the region after an Iraq war, and the obstacles that will face the administration. What is not being questioned, for the most part, is the intensity of Bush's belief in the requirements he has outlined for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

"The read is that he really believes it, and you are underestimating him if you think he's not committed to his goals,'' one Jewish official said.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.