As Israel's counteroffensive against Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon heads into its fourth week, it's time to explicitly acknowledge one huge difference between this latest chapter of Israel's 58-year-old war of self-defense and those that have preceded it.
Like the Sherlock Holmes story in which the key factor is the dog that did not bark, it is the almost complete absence of United States pressure for the Israelis to halt military operations that has made this battle different from all others.
Even in the face of massive international condemnation of the Jewish state after what may have been a stray Israeli bomb (or the actions of Hezbollah itself) that killed dozens of civilians in the Lebanese village of Kana, President Bush stuck to the same message that he and his secretary of state have held since the fighting began in July.
Bush insisted that Israel was within its right to defend itself against Hezbollah, and refused to join the growing international chorus demanding an immediate cease-fire. Instead, he maintained the position that fighting could not stop until a situation was reached that would lead to a lasting peace that both Israel and America believe means the disarmament of Hezbollah.
Ignoring the Establishment
While many feared that the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists' decision to escalate the conflict would create a test of the U.S.- Israel alliance that Bush might fail, he has passed it with flying colors. Indeed, if there is anything that has constrained Israeli decision-makers in the last month, it has been their own indecision, not the dead hand of American pressure.
No matter how Israel's fight in Lebanon resolves itself — and given the results from the first two weeks of fighting, a good outcome is far from a certainty — this virtual "green light" from Bush to Prime Minster Ehud Olmert's government to keep fighting until Hezbollah was whipped is an extraordinary development in the history of U.S.-Israel relations.
Never before has any U.S. president ever gone out of his way to publicly give Israel such latitude during the course of battle. Not Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan; none went as far out on a limb as Bush has gone to back the Israelis. Nor has any president so flagrantly ignored the advice of the foreign-policy establishment, which has always sought to enforce a more evenhanded approach between Israelis and Arabs.
Bush's statements even put into the shadow his own administration's behavior during the 2002 fighting in Palestinian cities following the "Passover massacre" of Israelis when former Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed to be undermining the president's message. But rather than carve out her own diplomatic turf and play "bad cop" to Bush's "good cop," Powell's successor Condoleezza Rice has echoed Bush's stand to the frustration of the Arab leaders with whom she met last week.
Despite pro forma calls for Israeli "restraint" (which were always accompanied by statements backing Israeli military actions), Bush has had Olmert's back every step of the way.
How have most American Jews reacted to this turn of events? While it's hard to gauge the reaction with any exactitude, you'd be hard-pressed to find much evidence of any lessening in the antipathy that the majority of Jews — who still form the backbone of the Democratic Party opposition to the GOP — for Bush personally, as well as for his policies.
How is this possible?
First, the fact remains that Israel, even in a time of crisis, is no longer the main issue motivating most politically aware Jews. They seem to care more about the laundry list of liberal domestic issues than the Mideast. If anything, Bush's supportive attitude toward Israel may have more resonance among conservative Christian voters than Jews.
But in addition to the indifference that some feel is the argument made by some critics that the president deserves no credit for his backing because the crisis, not to mention the collapse of the peace process with the Palestinians, is all his fault.
Such charges — which are often voiced by left-wing Jewish groups like the Israel Policy Forum, and advocated by The New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman and The Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin — are nonsense.
'No' to Appeasement
Bush's refusal to appease Palestinian terrorists — as his predecessors have done — didn't elect Hamas or cause the second intifada. Rather, it allowed Israel to contain terror that was encouraged by the Clinton's administration's feckless pursuit of a deal with terrorists who didn't want peace.
Bush's refusal to deal with the rogue regimes of Iran and Syria merely acknowledged a reality that "pragmatists" pretended did not exist. Support of these states for terror is a function of their own ideology, not Bush's backing of Israel.
The diplomatic overtures — a code word for appeasement — advocated by writers like Friedman and Rubin to Tehran and Damascus will encourage the Islamists to think America hasn't the stomach to back its ally.
Contrary to the cliché voiced by these purveyors of the same old foreign-policy establishment snake oil, the next generation of terrorists are not being created by American support for Israel, but by the prospect of Hezbollah and Hamas victories.
Will Bush waver in the coming weeks? It's possible, but if he does, it may have more to do with Israel's failure to take advantage of the opening the administration gave it than any shift here. If Hezbollah is left in place, it will be a defeat for both Israel and the United States. That will put both countries in a bind.
None of this obligates anyone to vote for the Republicans this fall. Bipartisan support for Israel has held with many Democrats saying the right things, too. But at the very least, it ought to give Jewish Bush-haters pause before they buy into the latest round of invective spewed by the left.
The virulent partisanship of our day may be too great to allow some Democrats — who continue to command the loyalty of the majority of American Jews — to acknowledge the truth about Bush's generally sterling record.
But there is little doubt that the verdict of history on George W. Bush's relationship with Israel will show that in the summer of 2006, he took the alliance to a place it had never gone before. Maybe it will take the passage of time, and perhaps the advent of a successor in the Oval Office who doesn't share Bush's devotion to the idea that Israel's war against Islamist terror is America's war as well, before many of us will give him his due.
If so, many who now speak of him with disdain will have cause to remember George W. Bush with a fondness he never enjoyed while in office.