It’s time to let the Israelis take off the gloves

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A LOT HAS BEEN written in recent years about stateless terrorism. The events of the last few weeks show, to the contrary, that some of the world’s most malignant terrorist groups continue to rely on state support. Hamas runs its own quasi-state -- the Palestinian Authority. Hezbollah is a state-within-a-state in Lebanon. And lurking behind both are the real troublemakers: Iran and Syria.

The current crisis exposes the inadequacy of American policy toward this new axis of evil. The problem is not, as so many have it, that President Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy” has unsettled the region’s vaunted stability. It is that Bush hasn’t been enough of a cowboy.

Working with France, the U.S. succeeded last year in forcing Syrian troops out of Lebanon, thus allowing free elections to be held. But Lebanese democracy will remain hollow until Hezbollah disarms in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, something that no one has been willing to enforce -- until now.


The U.S. should have done more to stop Syria from supporting not only the terrorists targeting Israel but those targeting U.S. troops in Iraq. Syrian strongman Bashar Assad appeared to be down for the count when a U.N. investigation found evidence linking his regime to the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But Bush let him get up off the mat. Senior U.S. officials keep proclaiming that Syria’s support for terrorism is unacceptable, but by not doing more to stop it, they have tacitly accepted it.

The same is true of Iran. The mullahs continue to develop nuclear weapons and smuggle explosives into Iraq, and our only response has been talk and more talk. Perhaps this is a prelude to eventual military action, but in the meantime the administration should have done more to aid internal foes of the mullahocracy. It has taken until now -- five years into the Bush presidency -- for the U.S. to commit any serious money ($66 million) for Iranian democracy promotion, and the State Department has blocked efforts on Capitol Hill to spend even more.

The Jewish state is now paying the price for American inaction. The Katyusha, Kassam and Fajr rockets raining down on Israel are either made by Iran or with Iranian assistance. The same is true of the C-802 cruise missile that hit an Israeli warship. Syria facilitates the delivery of these weapons and provides a haven for Hamas political head Khaled Meshaal. The Iranians and Syrians are as culpable for the aggression against Israel as if they had been pulling the triggers themselves -- which, for all we know, they may have been.

And world leaders such as Vladimir V. Putin (he of the scorched-earth policy in Chechnya) have the chutzpah to criticize Israel for its “disproportionate” response? What would a proportionate Israeli response to the snatching of its soldiers and the bombardment of its soil look like? Should Israel kidnap low-level Hamas and Hezbollah operatives? Those organizations wouldn’t mind in the slightest; they want as many martyrs as possible.

The real problem is that Israel’s response has been all too proportional. So far it has only gone after Hamas and Hezbollah. (Some collateral damage is inevitable because these groups hide among civilians.) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is showing superhuman restraint by not, at the very least, “accidentally” bombing the Syrian and Iranian embassies in Beirut, which serve as Hezbollah liaison offices.

It’s hard to know what accounts for this Israeli restraint, for which, of course, it gets no thanks. It may just be a matter of time before the gloves come off. Or Olmert may be afraid of upsetting the regional status quo. The American neocon agenda of regime change is not one that finds favor with most Israelis (ironic, considering how often the rest of the world has denounced neocons as Mossad agents). The Israeli attitude toward neighboring dictators is “better the devil you know.” That may make sense with Jordan and Egypt, which have made peace with Israel, but not with Syria, which serves as a vital conduit between Tehran and Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran may be too far away for much Israeli retaliation beyond a single strike on its nuclear weapons complex. (Now wouldn’t be a bad time.) But Syria is weak and next door. To secure its borders, Israel needs to hit the Assad regime. Hard. If it does, it will be doing Washington’s dirty work. Our best response is exactly what Bush has done so far -- reject premature calls for a cease-fire and let Israel finish the job.