WASHINGTON — Staunchly pro-Israel conservatives with close ties to the Bush administration say that Jerusalem is hindering America’s global war on terror by failing to wage an all-out war to eliminate Hezbollah.
In interviews with the Forward and in recently published opinion articles, conservatives slammed Israel’s reluctance to launch a comprehensive ground-war against the Lebanese Shi’ite militia. Top Israeli officials — particularly Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the military’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz — have been subject to unusually harsh criticism from the pro-Israel right, including prominent neoconservatives.
By not dealing a swift, decisive blow to Hezbollah, these critics say, Israel is eroding its own ability to deter terrorist attacks and undermining efforts by the democratic world to demonstrate that the international community is resolute in its campaign to defeat terrorism.
“The only way you defeat an organization like Hezbollah is on the ground. So I would have been much more comfortable if the Israelis had called up all of their reserves and gone all out in Lebanon from the first 24 hours,” former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich told the Forward. Bombing campaigns, Gingrich said, are “counterproductive, because they don’t hurt the enemy that much and they weaken you on television.”
Gingrich, a possible 2008 presidential candidate who still commands a popular following in conservative circles, said that by not launching a comprehensive ground campaign, Israel has set itself up for defeat.
Comments similar to Gingrich’s are reverberating throughout conservative think tanks in Washington, and — according to some sources and pundits — are shared by hawks in the Bush administration. Charles Krauthammer, a leading neoconservative commentator, wrote a column insisting that Olmert’s “unsteady and uncertain leadership” is threatening the Bush administration’s confidence in Israel as a dependable and strategic ally in the war on terror.
Publicly, at least, the administration has not expressed any such criticism of Israel. Some spokesmen have denied sharply the suggestion that Washington has given Israel a “green light” to pursue the campaign against Hezbollah. But in private conversations, sources close to the White House and the Pentagon said, administration hawks have expressed disappointment and frustration about Israel’s inability to deal a swift and decisive blow to Hezbollah.
“Some in the administration expected that Hezbollah, which is a fully owned Iranian subsidiary, would be not just bloodied but put in a desperate position,” said Ariel Cohen, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “So far, we are not seeing that.” It is not clear whether these sentiments were communicated to Israel and whether the administration advised or pressured Israel to change its war tactics accordingly. Multiple well-placed sources said that administration officials did convey their puzzlement with the slow pace of the operation. Official Israeli sources insist, however, that the Bush administration does not interfere with Israeli military tactics. Jewish activists in Washington that have close relations to both governments say that the Bush administration definitely did not push Israel to press harder against Hezbollah with massive ground forces.
At the same time that neoconservatives are calling on Israel to be more aggressive, some congressional Republicans have taken the opposite point of view, criticizing what they say has been Jerusalem’s excessive use of force. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last week warned that “military action alone will not destroy Hezbollah or Hamas” and that “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.”
This week, 10 of the 12 Senators who did not sign a bipartisan letter calling on the European Union to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations were Republicans. These included the top two Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — Hagel and the chairman, Richard Lugar of Indiana — as well as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner of Virginia. A spokesman for Lugar said that the senator declined to sign the letter because he already had sent a similar one of his own to the E.U. Hagel’s office referred the Forward to a recent speech that the Nebraska lawmaker gave, in which he said that “Hezbollah is a threat to Israel, to Lebanon and to all of those who strive for lasting peace in the Middle East.” The speech, the spokesman said, expresses Hagel’s views on Hezbollah. Warner’s staff did not return calls.
The apparent polarization among conservatives reflects the divisions within the Bush administration, according to sources close to the White House. While some senior officials in the Pentagon and in the White House would like to see a more aggressive Israeli military campaign in Lebanon, the State Department, concerned about fallout in the Arab world and in Europe, is pushing for more restraint, sources said.
Israeli commentators of various political stripes have criticized their government for projecting an inconsistent message by shifting tactics, changing the goals of its military operation and being vague about its definition of victory. In an August 4 interview, when asked by an Israeli television reporter to explain “when would we know that we won,” Halutz, a lieutenant general, replied, “We’ll sense it.” At the same time, some Israeli experts and sources say, Jerusalem’s hesitance to risk large-scale casualties to its ground forces is not a case of trying to fight a war “on the cheap” as much as it is an attempt to avoid handing a victory to the enemy: Last month, in one of his televised addresses, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that his organization’s achievement would be measured by the number of casualties it inflicts on the Israeli military. Yossi Melman, a respected security writer in Israel, argued in a recent Ha’aretz column that Jerusalem’s restrained approach was aimed at securing support from other countries, including the United States, for the Israeli military’s prolonged efforts to weaken Hezbollah.
Shlomo Aronson, a professor of political science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that critics are simply impatient. While Israeli decision-makers were in fact reluctant to use ground forces in the first phases of the war, following the past month’s bombing of vast areas in southern Lebanon, Israeli forces now seem to be following a plan that involves “clean up” operations by ground troops. “The war is not yet over, and you can’t tell what will be the final result,” Aronson said. “This kind of criticism is just too early to be made.” On Wednesday, Israel’s Cabinet in fact approved plans to broaden and intensify the ground campaign in Lebanon. But many Washington Conservatives contend that by not doing so from the start, Israel sent a damaging message of weakness to terrorists.
Krauthammer, in a scathing August 4 column that ruffled the feathers of many in Washington’s pro-Israel community, wrote that because Israel has failed to score a clear victory against Hezbollah, it is missing a “rare opportunity to demonstrate that it can contribute to America’s global war against militant Islam” and, in the process, it was triggering serious questions within the administration about Israel’s strategic value to America. Olmert’s “search for victory on the cheap has jeopardized not just the Lebanon operation but America’s confidence in Israel as well,” Krauthammer wrote.
On the strategic level, according to conservatives in Washington, the war on terrorism calls for bold approaches to achieve clear-cut victories. Conservatives realize that “it wasn’t Hezbollah that tied Israel down as much as it was Israel’s own sense of morality,” said Thomas Neumann, executive director of the hawkish Washington think tank the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “But as always, when Israel doesn’t do what needs to be done, it is interpreted by the other side as a sign of weakness,” Neumann said. Gingrich told the Forward that, in a speech he is preparing to deliver September 9 at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, he will argue that both America and Israel are failing in their fight against global terrorism.
“Watching the failures in Iran, in North Korea, in Iraq, in Gaza and in Lebanon, this is going to be a harder, deeper, more difficult war than I would have guessed five years ago,” Gingrich said.
The way in which both countries are fighting terrorism, he said, would be as if in the 1930s, world democracies had tried to confront dictatorships “and suddenly discovered that you couldn’t do it on the cheap.” What many fail to understand, he said, is that “this is the most important foreign policy dialogue since Truman and Vandenberg created the bipartisan Cold War coalition in 1946-1947, and that south Lebanon is a piece of the larger mosaic.”
Asserting that any Israeli restraint is “an absolute formula for disaster,” Gingrich argued that “if there are any missiles left, this is a defeat for the democracies; if there are any Iranian Revolutionary Guards left in south Lebanon, this is a defeat for the democracies; if Hezbollah is not disarmed, it is a defeat for the democracies. Any strategy that buys temporary cessation of hostilities while allowing Iran, Syria and Hezbollah to build their strength for another fight is a strategy of failure and defeat.”
In a rare step, conservatives are criticizing Israeli military and political decision-makers on tactical matters. Public scorn from conservatives for Olmert, Peretz and Halutz appears to have reached an unprecedented level. One pro-Israel activist in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he never had seen such vitriol coming from the pro-Israel American right at a time of war. “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has provided unsteady and uncertain leadership. Foolishly relying on air power alone, he denied his generals the ground offensive they wanted, only to reverse himself later,” Krauthammer wrote.
Cohen, of the Heritage Foundation, told the Forward that Israel’s conduct has brought about “a realization that the Olmert-Peretz-Halutz team is lacking a clear strategy and tactical plan on how to defeat Hezbollah, both for lack of experience and because you have a chief of general staff who is a pilot commanding what should essentially be a ground war.”
“Let’s face it: Nobody likes a pushover; nobody likes a weakling,” Cohen said. “This is something else that Olmert and Peretz have to think about: how Israel is perceived not only in Europe and the Arab world but also in the United States.”
Jewish communal leaders criticized the criticism of Israel as inappropriate and ill-timed.
“There will be plenty of time after the war for post-mortem,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein said that Israel had adopted a measured strategy, and noted that it is now stepping up its ground campaign.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that he finds it “inappropriate” for Americans “who don’t take the consequences of their advice, especially when it comes to issues of life and death, to become backstage generals, sitting in Washington or in New York, trying to manage Israel’s war.”
Foxman speculated that neoconservatives may be making these critical remarks because they are trying to “vindicate” their general opposition to Israeli territorial withdrawals. Such criticism, at a time of war, Foxman said, “leaves a sour taste” and is “counterproductive.”