Dealing with Israel

Robert Novak

8/7/2006 12:01:00 AM - 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."

Hagel was blunt in predicting consequences: "Extended military action will tear apart Lebanon, destroy its economy and infrastructure, create a humanitarian disaster, further weaken Lebanon's fragile democratic government, strengthen popular Muslim and Arab support for Hezbollah, and deepen hatred of Israel across the Middle East. . . . The war against Hezbollah and Hamas will not be won on the battle field."

Such a departure by the second ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would seem newsworthy. But it attracted little attention outside Hagel's home state of Nebraska. He went to the Senate floor July 31 to deliver an abbreviated version of his Brookings speech. It generated neither approval nor dissent from Senate colleagues -- only silence.

His bold intervention will not abet 2008 presidential ambitions. There is no political upside in criticizing Israel. Other members of Congress who have said anything at all critical of Israel are few in number. Republican Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, whose family has roots in Lebanon, deplored Israel's attack on Lebanese power plants and other government infrastructure. Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, in a July 30 letter to the secretary of state, declared that "a continuation of the bombing campaign, as it is being carried out, is against the interests of Israel and the United States."

Such critics of Israel inevitably are taken to task, sooner or later -- usually sooner. When 28 left-wing Democratic House members signed a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Lebanon, Rep. Bob Filner of California was the only Jewish co-signer. The ink was hardly dry before he was contacted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the lobbying organization that keeps an eye on every member of Congress.

In his speech, Hagel pointed to the 2002 Saudi-sponsored Beirut declaration recognizing the state of Israel as a starting point for Middle East negotiations. In his letter to Rice, Van Hollen said resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute is essential for Middle Eastern peace. It is hard to send that message to Israel when Congress cheers on a military situation and the Bush administration acquiesces.