WASHINGTON — There has never been any doubt that the Bush administration or a majority of the American public would sympathize with Israel over the radical Islamist group Hizbullah in their latest conflict.
But as Israel continues air attacks and limited ground operations in Lebanon in an effort to neutralize Hizbullah, and the Lebanese-based radicals continue to fire rockets into northern Israel, there are already signs that the public is ambivalent toward US involvement in the conflict, a scenario that poses risks to President Bush.
Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed overseas for talks, but played down the possibility of an early end to hostilities. On Friday, she stressed the need to disarm Hizbullah, but added that she would not "try to get a cease-fire that I know isn't going to last."
A CNN poll taken July 19, one week after the fighting began, found that 65 percent of Americans do not want the US to play an "active role" in trying to resolve the conflict versus 27 percent who do. But 45 percent of respondents favored the idea of US military participation in an international peacekeeping force along the Israeli-Lebanese border; 42 percent opposed the idea.
With the US military already stretched abroad, views on another force commitment could shift when and if the time comes, analysts say.
"Public opinion in this country is going to be supportive of Israel," says Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. But, he adds, "it's one thing if the US is just supplying the underlying support; it will be a different matter when we get to the next stage, which will include whether we're part of an international force on the Syria-Lebanon border or the Israel-Lebanon border." Mr. Ornstein also raises the issue of who will pay for reconstruction, which will be very expensive.
In another poll of US voters, conducted last week by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the Israel Project, support for Israel had grown since conflicts began with Hizbullah and Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that was elected into power last January in the Palestinian territories. Conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last month over the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. The latest Israel Project poll found that US public support of Israel had risen to 60 percent, up from 45 percent last January, before the election of Hamas. Support for the Palestinians remained at 7 percent in both polls.
"Americans are so close to Israel that when Israel's at war, they really rally around Israel," says Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder of the Israel Project, a US advocacy group for Israel. "You can't expect that that level of excitement will sustain throughout a military engagement."
Images of Lebanese casualties and extensive damage to Lebanon's civilian infrastructure could also cut into US public support for Israel's military response to Hizbullah and the Bush administration's endorsement of that response.
But independent pollster John Zogby, an Arab-American whose son was recently evacuated from Lebanon, does not see much in the way of serious debate in the US over options in the Arab-Israeli conflict. "The public doesn't understand alternatives, because alternatives are not discussed," says Mr. Zogby.
"There are few Arab-American spokespersons, and when push comes to shove, in terms of Congress, there's no debate," he adds, noting that a House resolution last week backed Israel by a vote of 410-to-8. Zogby called the wrangling over House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's position "inside baseball." Congresswoman Pelosi would not put her name on the resolution, because Republicans refused to add language calling on both Israel and the two Islamist groups it is fighting to limit civilian casualties. Ultimately, Pelosi voted for the resolution.
Democrats cited pressure from the pro-Israel lobby – and evangelical Christian Zionists, a growing movement that had more than 3,400 representatives lobbying on Capitol Hill last Wednesday – working against Pelosi. But they see no impact on her in terms of support among Jewish voters. In recent presidential cycles, Democrats have continued to win a majority of the Jewish vote, but the GOP is making inroads: In 1992, the first President Bush won only 11 percent of the Jewish vote; in 2004, the current President Bush received 24 percent.
In the global context, Americans remain Israel's most steadfast supporters. A Pew Global Attitudes survey taken earlier this year, before the latest violence, found Americans the most sympathetic of the 15 nations surveyed.
Whether the US would play a role in dealing with the latest conflict was not in doubt. The question has been how and when.
"[Secretary of State Rice] is making a very bold and tough argument, in effect, that the US does not want to see the status quo ante established, and we continue to give Israel the lead that it needs to accomplish its mission in reducing Hizbullah action," says Larry Garber, executive director of the New Israel Fund, which supports civil rights and economic and social justice for all Israelis. "So I think part of it depends on, can Israel take advantage of this window [Rice is] providing, or does it get stuck in the mud in Lebanon in a way that will begin to create pressures on public opinion here [in the US] and elsewhere," Mr. Garber adds.