The key moment came in mid-February on the popular TV program Meet the Press, says The Forward, a leading Jewish-American newspaper. The respected moderator pointedly asked a top strategist of the Bush Administration whether a war against Saddam Hussein is in the American interest, and what is the link to Israel?
With that question, said The Forward, the toothpaste was out of the tube. It was now acceptable in polite discourse to bring up the role of Israel and its American Jewish supporters in the pending conflict with Iraq.
The Forward then cited a number of polite and not so polite press reports on the matter. Do these demonstrate a kind of anti-Semitism, as some allege, pondered the newspaper, or is that accusation meant to silence opposition to the war?
Critics mainly assail the so-called neo-conservatives, a largely though by no means exclusively Jewish group, who now hold a number of key positions in the Bush Administration. Many have close ties to Israel and some to Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, to which they have offered advice in the past.
Veteran foreign correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave writes that "the strategic objectives of the United States and Israel in the Middle East have gradually merged into a now cohesive Bush-Sharon doctrine." He says Prime Minister Sharon's powerful backers have been in charge of U.S. foreign policy since President Bush took office.
Newspaper columnist Georgie Anne Geyer writes that "the war party around the President is made up of unelected neo-conservatives and Israeli-right zealots backed by think tanks and campaign contributors and not the masses of the American people."
TV talk-show host Chris Matthews says "conservatives, some of them Jewish, believe we should fight the Arabs and take them down. They believe that if we do not fight Iraq, Israel will be in danger."
Columnist Robert Novak, a consistent critic of war with Iraq, writes that "any suggestion that the present course largely echoes policies of the present Israeli Government risks accusations of anti-Israeli and indeed anti-Semitic bias."
In the Chicago Tribune, Fred Donner, professor of Near-Eastern History at the University of Chicago, writes that neo-conservatives want to re-engineer the Middle East to make it more Israel-friendly. "It would be wrong to say they are the only force that is operating in shaping the administration's decisions," he says. "But it seems to me that in the absence of any real evidence of a connection between the government of Saddam Hussein and the events of September 11, the drive to launch a war now against Iraq suggests that the Likud-oriented group, as I like to call them, has some influence here. It is not really in America's interest to go to war against Iraq."
Professor Donner believes the Israeli strategy conforms to imperialist tendencies on the part of other members of the Bush Administration. "I think there is a confluence of interest," he says. "There are some people in the administration who are what we might call imperialists, who have a vision of America in the 21 century as the imperial power that dominates the world. That I think works parallel to the interests of this other group that is more specifically aligned with the Likud Party in Israel and its view of what should happen."
That is attributing a lot of influence to neo-conservatives, says Stephen Cohen, a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.
Major figures in the Bush Administration including the President, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are neither neo-conservatives nor Jewish. They are traditional American conservatives, says Mr. Cohen, looking out for the national interest, as they see it.
"There is an element of that political base not an important element in terms of numbers but important in ideas - which is the neo-conservative element," he says. "And among the neo-conservatives is an important sub-group, which is American Jews. They have had an important influence on the thinking about the Middle East that came to the fore in this administration after September 11. But it would be an enormous exaggeration to see the war as a result of any particular sub-group like this and not to understand the big picture."
Gary Schmitt is executive director of The Project for the New American Century, a key neo-conservative research organization. He says identifying neo-conservatives with the Likud is overdone. "There is no question that some among the neo-conservative ranks have friends and ties to various Israeli factions," he says. "I mean that is not a secret. The fallacy is that neo-conservatives here and Likud in Israel are in step. If you look at Israel's own policy position over the years, I do not think the neo-conservative and Israeli position lines up the way people think it does."
Mr. Schmitt says neo-conservatives have disagreed with the Likud Party on a number of occasions; for example, dealing with the Palestinians.
In his opinion, under the pressures of pending war, it is all too easy to look for scapegoats. "When popular opinion is on one side and the administration is on that side as well, the losers of the debate not unexpectedly start looking for all kind of other reasons that explain why policies have been adopted, to think that there is a secret cabal that has designs on running the U.S. government foreign policy, and that, of course, is nonsense," he says.
But the Bush Administration bears some responsibility for the rise of conspiracy theories, says Stephen Cohen of the Israel Policy Forum. "People who are not convinced by the strategic arguments made by the administration and there are many people in the world who are not so convinced, and there are some in America who are not so convinced are looking for ways of explaining it to themselves," he says. "It is nothing new that they would come up with this kind of linkage to make that explanation."
Leonard Fein, author and contributor to The Forward, is no admirer of either the neo-conservatives or Mr. Sharon, but he says they must be kept in perspective. "The neo-conservatives at long last are having their day, having started pursuing their day decades back and having predicted that their day would come," he says. "It has come, and they are plainly reveling in having it. That there is a confluence of ideas and interests between them and the Sharon Government, in my view equally mistaken on both sides, is plain. That the President seems to be engaged by them is equally plain."
But Mr. Fein believes Israel can hardly be blamed for neo-conservative hawkishness which goes back to the Cold War. Name the issue, and they wanted to assert American power. Today, the neo-conservatives are once again urging the use of power, says Mr. Fein, but they do not speak for all American Jews. "I have to say that in the Jewish community in which I do extensive traveling, meeting with Jewish audiences, the popular sentiment, is very disturbed by a coalition of the willing fighting the war and thereby risking the future of the United Nations," he says. "There is a sense, I think in the Jewish community now quite widespread, that we are on the verge of not only of a potential calamity but that we are on the verge of a new epoch in human history."
Mr. Fein, says that American Jews, like other Americans, worry that the rules governing international behavior may be swept away in the rush to war. And what happens after the war?
In an interview with The Forward, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it is legitimate to question the pro-Israel leanings of Bush Administration officials, but it crosses the line when their policies are attributed to a shadowy Jewish conspiracy that is supposed to control American foreign policy.