Congressional Democrats echo Bush's defense of Israel

By Ron Hutcheson

WASHINGTON - While President Bush routinely faces criticism from congressional Democrats over the Iraq war and his domestic policies, there's been little criticism over his stance on Israel's campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

That has freed him to stand firm against growing international pressure for an immediate cease-fire.

Even as much of the world expressed outrage Sunday over an Israeli airstrike that killed more than three dozen Lebanese children, a leading Democrat echoed Bush's defense of Israel.

"I have no criticism of the president on this issue because I think he is doing the right thing," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told CNN. "I know some in the world have called for an immediate cease-fire. But that says Hezbollah has a gun to Israel's head; let's let them continue to keep the gun there, which they can use at will. It's just not fair to Israel."

Responding to Sunday's carnage, Bush repeated his view that any cease-fire should be part of a far-reaching agreement that includes disarming Hezbollah militias that use Lebanon as a base for attacks on Israel. The current conflict began on July 12 after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers near Israel's border with Lebanon.

"Today's actions in the Middle East remind us that the United States and friends and allies must work for a sustainable peace, particularly for the sake of children," Bush said at a T-ball event on the White House South Lawn.

Congressional support for Israel's use of military force isn't unanimous. Many lawmakers are uneasy about the rising civilian death toll and the displacement of more than a half-million Lebanese. Some have joined the call for a truce.

"It is time for a cease-fire," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said during a July 19 House debate over a resolution endorsing the Israeli invasion. "The current actions of the Israelis have gone beyond going after Hezbollah."

But far more common is the view expressed during the same debate by Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. The resolution supporting Israel's invasion passed, 410-8.

"Israel is absolutely justified in undertaking the defense of its territory and its people," Hoyer said, blaming the civilian deaths on Hezbollah's actions.

Analysts said the strong congressional support for Israel reduces the political risk to Bush as he rebuffs calls for him to pressure Israel for a cease-fire. The United States has split from its European allies in resisting a cease-fire that isn't part of a broader political settlement. The United Nations Security Council began debating the issue Sunday and will continue working on it this week.

"It's easier to stand firm when you have the political community behind you," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "If anything, the criticism of Bush has come from those who said he hasn't been strong enough in supporting Israel."

Democratic congressional leaders criticized Bush last week for failing to demand that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki denounce Hezbollah. A handful of Democrats boycotted al-Maliki's speech to a joint session of Congress over al-Maliki's silence about Hezbollah's terrorist activity and his criticism of Israel's invasion.

Israel's political clout is nothing new. Many Americans feel a close connection to Israel, and pro-Israel activists are renowned for their ability to influence foreign policy. Still, polls indicate that Israel's supporters in Washington may be out of step with public opinion in the conflict with Hezbollah.

A recent Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans thought that the United States "should not take either side" in Israel's war with Hezbollah. About 31 percent sided with Israel, while 4 percent had no opinion. Support for Hezbollah was negligible.