Robert Novak

Reports of Israeli air attacks on Qana in Lebanon, killing at least 28 people including 19 children July 30, threatened Israel with a American public relations calamity. But this soon was eclipsed on cable television and front pages of many newspapers by actor Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic rant.

The attention by much of the news media turned from Lebanon to Gibson attempting an apology sufficiently abject to satisfy the Anti-Defamation League. Only a conspiracy theorist might claim this was an intentional escape route for American politicians to avoid a possible Israeli atrocity, but it certainly served that purpose. Washington remains largely a bipartisan, criticism-free zone for Israel.

While Republican Chuck Hagel is a lone senior senator who does not echo the Israeli position, he has been ignored. The Israeli government can disregard with impunity President Bush's call for restraint. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has failed to destroy Hezbollah militarily but has had the effect of strengthening it politically. Meanwhile, U.S. prestige is in a free fall throughout Islam.

The Israeli government's effort to clean Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon was carefully planned by the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). U.S. officials informed me 24 days ago they would give the IDF a week to liquidate the terrorists before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could pursue a cease-fire. But the long-planned Israeli operation in southern Lebanon found no quick success as Hezbollah proved itself a formidable fighting machine.

The U.S. government has scant ability to influence what Israel does or even says, as shown by a startling exchange July 28 that received surprisingly little attention. When a Rome summit did not call for a cease-fire, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon exulted that amounted to a "green light" to crush Hezbollah. The official U.S. reaction came from a relatively low-level State Department official. Adam Ereli, Rice's spokesman, said: "Any such statement is outrageous." But Israel understandably has treated Rome as a green light.

On the day of the green light exchange, Hagel delivered a thoughtful address to the Brookings Institution in Washington. While avowing support for Israel to retaliate against Hezbollah and Hamas (in the Gaza strip), Hagel declared "military action alone will not destroy Hezbollah or Hamas."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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