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(photo credit: AP [file])
Head of US Central Command General John Abizaid did not attempt to hide his concern when he appeared this week in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee. "A couple of days ago I returned from the Middle East," Abizaid told the senators, "I've rarely seen it so unsettled or volatile."
For the US, there is a lot to be worried about in the Middle East these days; and the Lebanon war - more specifically, the way Israel is conducting it - is at the top of the list. Indeed, Abizaid is not the only one expressing concern over the situation in the Middle East, or seeing Israel's difficulty in defeating the Hizbullah as more than merely a local problem, but rather as a symbol of the West's inability to deal with extremists and terrorists aiming to take control of the entire region.
President Bush is still supportive and optimistic, but his outer circles are already beginning to question Israel's conduct and to voice disappointment with its inability to finish off the Hizbullah.
Israeli military officials in Washington brief Pentagon officials on the fighting in Lebanon almost on a daily basis. Though there are no maps on the table, officers and civilians at the Pentagon are receiving detailed reports about the goals of the military activity, the number of launchers destroyed and the progress on the ground. "They are very appreciative of our military abilities and results," says a senior Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity. He adds that Israel is now viewed as the only country in the world that has successfully managed to "close the circle" against rocket and missile launchers in an effective way - meaning that the IDF managed in the past month to locate the launchers after they fired rockets at Israel and destroy them within minutes. "All the armies in the world are talking about hunting launchers, but we are the only ones who succeed in doing it," the official asserts proudly. His positive statements, however, conflict with gloomier intelligence information the administration is receiving, one US source said this week.
Israelis are aware of the sense of discomfort in the administration caused by the prolonged war and inability to reach a clear victory. One Pentagon source said: "I hear people around here asking why it is taking so long - why a week passed before ground troops were deployed."
The Israeli official denies that such questions represent the mainstream approach in the American military establishment toward Israeli actions. He stresses that if there is any frustration in the Pentagon, it derives from the lack of progress on the diplomatic front, not from the military actions on the ground. "After five years of fighting Palestinian terror, we understand very well that you can suppress terror, not destroy it," he says, "I'm sure people in the Pentagon understand that, too. After all, they go through it every day in Iraq."
THE MOST criticism against Israel's lack of success in Lebanon is being voiced these days by the neoconservatives in Washington, who feel that Israel has let them down. Columnist Charles Krauthammer led the way this week, writing: "The US has gone far out on a limb to allow Israel to win and for all this to happen. It has counted on Israel's ability to do the job. It has been disappointed."
According to Krauthammer, whose article became the talk in neoconservative circles this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "unsteady leadership" and his decision to "foolishly rely" on air power, are causing Israel to miss its rare opportunity to prove that the Jewish state is an asset for the US. "Israeli leaders do not seem to understand how ruinous a military failure in Lebanon would be to its relationship with America," he argues.
Others share this view.
"There is a feeling that all of America's Mideast policy now rests on Israel and that if Israel loses this war, the next phase would be much worse for the US," says Meyrav Wurmser of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. According to this approach, Israel's success in Lebanon is vital, because it can send an important message to Iran. If Israel is not able to convey this message clearly, the US will face the consequences, mainly in Iraq, where Iran could instigate a Shiite rebellion which might drive the American forces out of the country. "Israel needs to understand that there is a sense of disappointment," Wurmser adds, "and a lot of concern of what the future will bring if Israel does not emerge victorious from this war."
Israeli sources reject this pessimistic view. They claim that the administration is well aware of the fact that Israel has intentionally avoided a full-scale war in the region and is limiting the scope of its military actions by not targeting Syria or the Lebanese army, in order to make way for a diplomatic solution. "Those who are preaching to us to finish the war quickly are the same ones who for the past three years were not able to finish the job in Iraq," said one of these sources.
OTHERS ARGUE that the criticism should be taken for what it is - a sense of disappointment on the part of those who had high hopes, but not from decision-makers in the administration.
"There were those who wanted to see magic, and that did not happen," says Tom Neumann, Executive Director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a Jewish group known for its hawkish approach to issues of defense and security. Neumann believes that Bush has no second thoughts on supporting Israel or backing its military actions in Lebanon. "Israel does not have to worry about losing American support," he says. "What it does have to worry about is losing the image of Superman in the eyes of the world."
One thing all sides agree on is that Israel's attempt to fight Hizbullah in Lebanon is being closely watched by the US and will have repercussions far beyond this specific battlefield. For the US, the Israeli-Lebanese arena is a test case for fighting terror groups and may serve as an example of how - or how not - to conduct the global war on terror from here on in. "It is always a good idea to learn from experience," says the Israeli senior official, "and it is even better when you can learn from the experience of someone else."