Support for Tel Aviv complicates diplomacy

WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush’s uncompromising support for Israel in its battle with Hizbollah, a stance now backed by Congress, is threatening to isolate the United States even further from the international community.

It is also putting the administration at odds with fragile democratic governments in the Middle East that it is simultaneously trying to prop up, and sowing increasing anger across the Arab world.

The democratically elected prime ministers of both Iraq and Lebanon have been among the most vocal critics of US policy in the 10-day Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.

Some foreign policy analysts question whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice can make much headway on her trip to the region early next week — especially given US rejection of international calls for a cease-fire and refusal to talk to key players such as Hizbollah or its Iranian and Syrian sponsors.

“You don’t just negotiate with your friends. Sometimes you negotiate with your enemies, or at least your adversaries,” said Sandy Berger, former national security adviser in the Clinton administration. “We negotiated with the Soviet Union for 50 years.” Both the first president George H.W. Bush and president Bill Clinton met directly with then-Syrian president Hafez Al Assad in efforts to advance Mideast peace prospects.

But the current Bush administration is adamant in resisting any direct contact with Syrian President Bashar Assad, son of the former president, or with Hizbollah leaders.

“The track record stinks” in terms of what both former presidents Bush and Clinton achieved in their meetings with Assad’s father, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said.

And Rice told reporters on Friday, “Syria knows what it needs to do, and Hizbollah is the source of the problem.” Hizbollah is an Islamic group based in southern Lebanon that is supported by both Syria and Iran. The crisis began when Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and Israel retaliated by widespread bombing in Lebanon and with a naval blockade. Hizbollah upped the ante by firing hundreds of missiles into northern Israel, provoking more Israeli counterattacks and displacing what the UN estimates as a half-million people.

Arab anger is rising towards both Israel and the United States, even though moderate governments throughout the region do not wish to see Hizbollah’s tentacles grow any further, viewing the group as an extension of Iran’s ambitions to increase influence throughout the Middle East.

The US has not yet been able to capitalise on that Arab ambivalence towards Hizbollah.

“The administration does the rhetoric of war well, but is not very good with diplomacy,” said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the private Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Trips by Rice to the region “don’t accomplish anything,” she said.

Both the House and Senate passed resolutions this week by overwhelming margins supporting Israel — and Bush administration policy — in the conflict.

But the votes were probably more of a reflection of midterm election year politics — and a desire not to offend Jewish voters — than any newfound appreciation of Bush’s foreign policy skills.

The combined effect of the administration’s hardline pro-Israel stance and Congress’ echoing of it is to undermine US diplomacy, said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast scholar at the University of Maryland.

“We’re acquiescing in what is obviously a humanitarian disaster, regardless of who’s to blame. And that is not a message that helps the United States,” Telhami said.

While Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have criticised Hizbollah’s tactics, “they’re going against public opinion in their countries. You have an overwhelming outpouring of public support for Hizbollah.” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said Israel understands public opinion has been inflamed in the Arab world. He said he expects “a spike against us” in the days to come, but he emphasised that Israel was not prepared to give up its campaign until Hizbollah is sufficiently weakened.

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