WASHINGTON — Despite mounting international criticism, growing divisions within Israel and sharp operational disappointments on the ground, Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon continues to enjoy unwavering support from the Bush administration and from traditional pro-Israel circles in Washington, including a wall-to-wall coalition of Jewish organizations.
The administration’s firm support stems, officials say, from its perception of this war as a front in America’s ongoing confrontation with Iran. Several senior administration officials in recent days told officials with major Jewish groups that they view this as a battle against Iran’s attempt to increase its influence in Lebanon and as part of a war to block Iran’s influence in the Middle East at large.
As the war approached its third week, its difficulties were tacitly acknowledged by Jerusalem. The goal of Jerusalem was scaled down from the initial target of crushing Hezbollah to the more modest objective of pushing it away from the border. Even that goal appeared in question, however, as support thinned and pressure grew for a cease-fire.
The growing isolation of the pro-Israel coalition was on display Wednesday in Rome, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, sharing a podium with the United Nations secretary general, the prime minister of Lebanon and the foreign minister of Italy, insisted that a premature cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah was counterproductive. While the final statement of the “Lebanon Core Group” called for reaching “with utmost urgency” a “cease-fire that is urgent and sustainable,” Rice made clear that America emphasizes the sustainability over the urgency. According to initial press reports from Rome, the American position, rejecting an immediate ceasefire, was not shared by any of the other participants — foreign ministers of several European nations, Arab countries, the United Nations and the World Bank. Lebanon also participated, represented by its prime minister, Fouad Siniora. Israel did not attend.
In Washington, the administration came to blows with a group of congressional Democrats who are among Israel’s strongest supporters over a White House press conference Tuesday at which the visiting prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, condemned Israel’s action as “aggression” and called for an immediate cease-fire, saying nothing about the role of Hezbollah, Iran or Syria in the crisis.
In response, a group of Democrats wrote to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and asked that he cancel a planned appearance by Maliki before a joint session of Congress. But with only 20 signers — less than 5% of the House, all of them Democrats and with Jewish members at the lead — the letter failed to move Hastert.
More than two weeks into Israel’s military operations, Israel has scaled back its objectives in Lebanon while keeping up its bombing and shelling campaign and absorbing Hezbollah rockets at a growing rate. Israeli civilian and military casualties are mounting, with at least eight infantrymen killed and more than 22 injured Wednesday alone, in an ongoing battle to capture the small southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold. The Lebanese civilian casualty count is also rising, reaching more than 390 by Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Israel suffered a major public-relations blow when it hit a U.N. observers’ position in south Lebanon, killing four U.N. peacekeepers. The incident prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to accuse Israel of an “apparently” deliberate targeting of the post.
Criticism of the conduct of the war, from the political decision-making process to the blanket bombing of residential neighborhoods in southern Beirut, is mounting in Israel. This week several respected pundits joined the critics, including veteran military analyst Ze’ev Schiff of the daily Ha’aretz. “Two weeks into the war, it is safe to say that Israel is still far from a decisive conclusion and its chief objectives have not been achieved,” Schiff wrote Wednesday.
On Tuesday, mayors of northern Israeli towns, meeting with top military commanders in the border town of Kiryat Shmona, reportedly said that their population would not be able to withstand more than a week of additional fighting. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee on Wednesday, called for “resolve and patience,” and reportedly said that the public’s perseverance is what would determine the results of the crisis.
Politically, too, the first cracks were visible in the wall of support that Olmert has so far enjoyed domestically. Following Olmert’s appearance in the Knesset, the main leftwing opposition party, Meretz, called on the prime minister to heed the calls from Rome for an immediate cease-fire. The main rightwing opposition party, Likud, is still supporting the campaign, even though its objectives have been scaled down from demolishing Hezbollah and its infrastructure throughout Lebanon into weakening the Islamist militia and pushing it a mile and a half north of the border.
In the face of the criticism and the troublesome implementation of the war effort, the government of Israel and the United States this week seemed steadfast in support of a controversial war, to the deep appreciation of America’s major Jewish groups.
“The crisis in the Middle East today has brought us to one of those rare moments that transcend party and ideological lines. There is no daylight at all between the government of Israel, the Bush administration, Congress and the American Jewish community,” said William Daroff, director of the Washington office of United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of local Jewish charitable federations.
Officials at the Jewish community’s two most influential policy coalitions agreed.
“There is unanimity of conviction and concern” in the Jewish community regarding Israel’s actions in Lebanon, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hadar Susskind, who directs the Washington office of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that there is “zero dissent” within the Jewish community.
“As opposed to everything else we do, on this we have absolute unanimity,” he said. The JCPA, a consultative group that coordinates the policies of 13 national agencies and 123 local Jewish community-relations councils, is often critical of the Bush administration’s domestic policies. This week it called on its members to send letters to the White House, thanking Bush for his solid support of the war.
Even within the Jewish community, however, the first cracks in the wall of unanimity were appearing this week, with an effort by the leftwing Tikkun Community to gather signatures for a newspaper advertisement calling for an end to the fighting. The advertisement, headlined “Stop the Slaughter in Lebanon, Israel and the Occupied Territories,” will call for an immediate halt to Israel’s “attacks on Lebanon,” an end to Hezbollah and Hamas shelling, and an international conference to “impose” a regional settlement.