Hard-Line Neocons Assail Israel for Timidity

While much of the world has criticized Israel for carrying out a "disproportionate" war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, hard-line neoconservatives have attacked the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for timidity.

As noted by diplomatic correspondent Ori Nir in this week’s edition of The Forward, the U.S.’ most important Jewish newspaper, the Israeli government and its military’s chief of staff, Gen. Dan Halutz, have been subjected to unusually harsh criticism, including the charge that, by failing to wage a more aggressive war, they were jeopardizing Israel’s long-term strategic alliance with Washington.

"[Hezbollah] is today the leading edge of an aggressive, nuclear-hungry Iran," wrote Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer earlier this week. "… [Olmert’s] search for victory on the cheap has jeopardized not just the Lebanon operation but America’s confidence in Israel as well. The tremulous Olmert seems not have a clue."

In particular, Krauthammer and other leading neoconservatives have assailed Olmert for not launching a massive ground invasion from the outset which, in their view, could have effectively crushed Hezbollah’s military capabilities, if not the organization itself.

"Hezbollah can only be destroyed by a ground campaign," wrote National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg early in the campaign. "If Israel doesn’t launch one, it will be worse off."

Still others attacked him for failing to widen the war beyond Lebanon to Hezbollah supporters, Iran and Syria.

"[While] Iran may be too far away for much Israeli retaliation beyond a single strike on its nuclear weapons complex," wrote Max Boot, a Council of Foreign Relations fellow, in the Los Angeles Times, "… Syria is weak and next door. To secure its borders, Israel needs to hit the [President Bashir] Assad regime."

He was joined by in that appeal by Meyrav Wurmser, director of the neoconservative Hudson Institute Center for Middle East Policy and, significantly, the Israeli-born spouse of David Wurmser, a top Middle East adviser of Vice President Dick Cheney.

"The bottom line is that Israel’s gripe is not with Lebanon; it [is] with Syria and Iran," she wrote in National Review online (NRO). "Given the explosive nature of the situation, Israel ought not let its adversaries define the battleground. Rather, it ought to carry the battle to them."

These public attacks are widely believed to reflect the positions of hard-line neoconservatives within the administration of President George W. Bush, centered, in particular, in Cheney’s office and that of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

They have largely been confined, however, to the more extreme elements in the neoconservative movement, particularly those most closely associated with the right wing of Israel’s opposition Likud Party.

With the exception of Krauthammer, they have strongly opposed former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza and have been using the ongoing crisis there, as well as the war in Lebanon, to discredit Olmert’s "convergence" strategy – his plan to dismantle many Jewish settlements in all but about 10 percent of the occupied West Bank.

More pragmatic neoconservatives, such as those clustered around Weekly Standard editor William Kristol (who, however, called in the early days of the war for a quick U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities), have generally refrained from second-guessing Olmert’s leadership and the conduct of the war.

Instead, they have focused on framing Israel’s war against Hezbollah as part and parcel of Washington’s larger "global war on terror." They have discouraged any suggestion that Washington seek to restrain Israel in its conduct of the war or impose a premature cease-fire, and have assailed "realist" and State Department proposals to directly engage Syria and Iran in efforts to stop the fighting or at least de-escalate the crises in which Israel finds itself as "appeasement."

Even these positions, however, have not been entirely appreciated by Olmert’s government, according to Nir. He told the Voice of America (VOA) last week that he had "ascertained for a fact" that Israel had asked the Bush administration to use its influence with the Syrian government to gain the release of the three soldiers abducted by Hamas and Hezbollah, but that Washington – no doubt as a result of internal neoconservative influence – had declined to do so. It was "quite a disappointment for Israel," he said.

Of the hard-line criticisms of Olmert, the most controversial has been the charge that, by failing to prosecute the war more vigorously, his government was undermining the administration’s confidence in Israel as an effective ally in the war on terror.

Because of Hezbollah’s strategic importance to Iran, "America wants, America needs, a decisive Hezbollah defeat," wrote Krauthammer in his Aug. 4 column, which noted that the existence of a "fierce debate in the United States about whether, in the post-Sept. 11 world, Israel is a net asset or liability."

"Hezbollah’s unprovoked attack on July 12 provided Israel the extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate its utility by making a major contribution to America’s war on terrorism," but Olmert’s "unsteady and uncertain leadership" had put that in question.

"The United States has gone far out on a limb to allow Israel to win. … It has counted on Israel’s ability to do the job. It has been disappointed," according to Krauthammer, who is known to be a favorite of Cheney.

Although Krauthammer’s message was particularly crude, it was echoed in part by hard-line neoconservative editorial writers in both National Review and the Wall Street Journal, which repeatedly called for Olmert to take stronger action more quickly lest, as the Journal put it, "President Bush’s entire vision for the Middle East … suffer a severe setback."

"Let’s face it: Nobody likes a pushover; nobody likes a weakling," Ariel Cohen, a neoconservative at the Heritage Foundation, told Nir. "This is something Olmert and [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz have to think about: how Israel is perceived not only in Europe and the Arab world, but also in the United States."

These criticisms have provoked outrage from some quarters, particularly among mainstream leaders in the U.S. Jewish community.

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Forward that it was "inappropriate" for non-Israelis "who don’t take the consequences of their advice, especially when it comes to issues of life and death, to become backstage generals, sitting in Washington or in New York, trying to manage Israel’s war."

"[Krauthammer] is one of those armchair General Pattons who rarely, if ever, indicates that he feels pain about the loss of soldiers whether in Lebanon, Iraq, or anywhere else," noted M.J. Rosenberg, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), who strongly favors diplomatic efforts – including with Syria – to end the fighting.

"Some on the right would rather blame Israel for its hesitation about fighting than consider how much better off Israel if it didn’t have to fight at all," he wrote in his weekly newsletter.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.