Bush giving Tel Aviv running room

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is trying to hold off international pressure for an immediate halt to the Israeli assault in southern Lebanon, apparently to allow Israel a short window to do as much damage as possible.

That puts Washington at odds with some allies and others who want a quick end to cross-border rocket attacks that have claimed more than 200 lives in a week and sent a tide of refugees fleeing Lebanon.

“I want the world to address the root causes of the problem, and the root cause of the problem is Hizbollah,” President George W. Bush said Tuesday.

The administration is “giving some latitude for some period of time to try to damage Hizbollah,” said Samuel Berger, who was White House national security adviser to president Bill Clinton, Bush’s predecessor.

Geoffrey Kemp, a National Security Council adviser in the administration of president Ronald Reagan, said he sees a “deliberate policy” to keep hands off of Israel for now. “You’ve got a rare moment in Washington where there is sort of bipartisan consensus that the Israelis have the right to do whatever it takes to end this threat,” said Kemp, now director of regional strategic programmes at the Nixon Centre.

Neither Bush nor his spokesmen say that publicly, but their actions speak loudly.

Taking a cue from Israel, the administration is distancing itself from allies’ calls for a ceasefire.

Bush has not called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert directly since the crisis began. Doing so would put him in the position either of having to ask Olmert to stop the assault or appear to endorse it.

“We have to make certain that anything that we do is going to be of lasting value,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

A ceasefire should come “as soon as possible when conditions are conducive to do so,” Rice said after a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who disagreed with her.

“A ceasefire is imperative,” he said. “We have to bring it to an end as soon as possible.” Rice also signalled that she may delay a planned peacemaking trip to the Middle East.

“When it is appropriate and when it is necessary and will be helpful to the situation, I am more than pleased to go to,” she said.

Washington knows it can only run interference for so long — perhaps a week — before it must accede to demands from the United Nations, European allies and the few strong friends the United States can claim among Arab nations, analysts said.

That probably will mean several days more of intensive Israeli air operations, as the country’s powerful military runs down a list of what it calls terrorist targets in southern Lebanon.

The United States also worries that if too much time passes, what is now a fight mostly contained along the Israel-Lebanon border could spread or bring down the fragile democratic government in Beirut.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora is friendly to the United States, although far from a steadfast ally. His political power is no match for Hizbollah, an Islamic organisation with both political and armed wings and is committed to Israel’s destruction.

Hizbollah effectively controls southern Lebanon, where it has fought an off-again, on-again border war with Israel for two decades. The United States lists Hizbollah as a terror group.

“We have made it very clear that Israel should be allowed to defend herself,” Bush said. “We’ve asked that as she does so, that she be mindful of the Siniora government.

“It’s very important that this government in Lebanon succeed and survive.” Israel cannot hope to destroy or even seriously disable Hizbollah with a short bombing campaign, said Aaron David Miller, a State Department Middle East adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations who is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre.

“There is no military solution to this,” Miller said.

The Bush administration knows this, he said, and it also knows that any eventual US intercession must be carefully timed: “Why would you want to intercede only to be perceived as having failed?”

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