Why Bush embraces Israel's hard line

While past presidents struggled with how far they backed Israel, he is one of its staunchest friends.

In the long history of US-Israel relations, President Bush may rank as one of the staunchest friends in the White House that the tiny Jewish state has ever had.

In part, this attitude appears to stem from Mr. Bush's travel in Israel and his personal relationships with its leaders. In part, it reflects the feelings of the US public, which is generally more pro-Israeli than is the population of Britain, say, or France.

But – as the White House reaction to the recent fighting makes clear – it may also stem from a stark view of Middle East conflicts. The overall administration calculus may run like this: There are good guys, and there are bad guys, and the role of the United States is not to manage negotiations between them but to facilitate the bad guys' defeat.

"The Bush administration [has] hoped to change the strategic equation in the region by eliminating or neutralizing regional troublemakers," writes Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a recent report on the current crisis.

Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved a UN cease-fire plan, scheduled to take effect Monday morning. The Lebanese government has also approved the truce, which calls for the deployment of about 15,000 foreign troops and an equal number of Lebanese soldiers in southern Lebanon. Despite the cease-fire plan, however, Israeli warplanes and troops continued fighting in Lebanon, and Israeli officials said their country would still be entitled to use force to prevent Hizbullah from rearming.

American presidents have long struggled to balance support of Israel with other Middle East diplomatic objectives. The balancing act, in fact, goes as far back as Harry Truman, who quickly recognized Israel in 1948 over the objections of Secretary of State George Marshall.

In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower faced down Israel, France, and Britain in the Suez Crisis, a convoluted scheme by the trio to unseat Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and reseize control of the Suez Canal.

In 1973, Richard Nixon rushed supplies such as ammunition and fighter jets to the Israeli military to bolster its fight for existence in the Yom Kippur War.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan embraced Israel as a strategic partner in the cold war. But Vice President George H.W. Bush didn't entirely share that attitude. He thought the US should be more of a neutral arbiter between Israel and Arab nations, which held vast reserves of oil.

When the first President Bush succeeded Reagan in the Oval Office, he for a time withheld US loan guarantees from Israel in an effort to force the curtailment of settlements in Israeli-occupied territory.

The second President Bush has broken with his father and warmly supported Israel, as Mr. Reagan did. One of the most repeated anecdotes of Bush's political biography is his 1998 helicopter flight over Israel with then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon. Bush marveled at how thin and fragile Israel seemed from the air, noting that there were "driveways in Texas" as long as the nation was wide.

Critics have charged that Bush's support of Israel is a result of his Christian faith and its attitude toward the Holy Land – something administration officials have long denied. Others point to the power of the Jewish vote. Bush received almost a quarter of Jewish votes in 2004, up from 19 percent in 2000. That's a significant increase, but Jews as a political group remain predominantly Democratic.

Critics also say Bush may be under the sway of pro-Israeli interest groups, long a potent Washington force.

Overall, "the 'special relationship' with Israel ... is due largely to the activities of the Israel lobby – a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who openly work to push US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction," write political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of a recent cover story on the subject in the journal Foreign Policy.

Administration supporters reply that, whatever the wellsprings of Bush's attitudes, he's merely reflecting US public opinion. They say Americans generally see Israel as a plucky democracy in a sea of autocracies – and a friend that, like the US, has endured terrorist attacks.

A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that 59 percent of respondents judged Israel's actions in the current conflict "justified." That's a stark contrast to opinion in Europe. In Britain, a Daily Telegraph poll found that only 17 percent of respondents agreed that Israeli attacks were "appropriate and proportional." In Germany, a similar survey found only 12 percent approval.

Then there is the 9/11 factor. Over the past five years, the administration has increasingly seen all Middle East conflicts through the lens of the war on terror. Given the stakes, that's the right choice, say administration officials. But others say longstanding regional conflicts don't lend themselves to an us-against-them style of analysis.

"I think the administration has had a rather militant and absolutist notion of how to achieve peace in the Middle East, laced with overtones of black-and-white morality," said former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies conference.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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