ISRAEL'S LICENSE TO WAGE WAR is nearing its expiration date. That was the gist of Friday's news conference featuring President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who sent a clear signal that their patience for an unrestrained Israeli campaign against Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon was nearing its end.
From the beginning of Israel's incursion into Lebanon almost three weeks ago, there seems to have been an unspoken understanding between not only the likes of Bush and Blair but leaders of moderate Arab states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that Israel's freedom to act in Lebanon would be short-lived -- a matter of days, or a few weeks, not months.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played the stalling game by taking her time before paying a call on Lebanon and Israel, and then providing little more than sympathy and a few million dollars for Lebanese refugees.
On Thursday, a meeting of high-level diplomats in Rome ended with a whimper as the United States and Britain refused to endorse calls for an immediate cease-fire. Israeli leaders took this as a green light to continue their offensive, but on Friday, Bush and Blair made it apparent that the light was turning yellow. They agreed that a multinational force should be deployed to assist the Lebanese army in taking control of the southern part of the country and that Rice would return to work out the terms of a deal between Israel and Lebanon.
Eliminating Hezbollah is proving to be a bigger challenge than Israeli military planners likely thought, so Jerusalem may be seeking a renewal of its go-ahead to wage retaliatory war. A relentless bombing campaign has not disrupted Hezbollah's ability to fire rockets into Israeli territory, and Israel is mobilizing reservists to prepare for the possibility of a wider conflict. As civilian casualties mount in Lebanon, the anger across the Arab world rises and the international outcry gets louder, the strategic cost of the unconditional U.S. support for Israel also rises.
By calling for a multinational force, Bush and Blair are wisely supporting a move that would shift the conflict from one between Hezbollah and Israel to one between Hezbollah and the world, assuming Hezbollah refuses to disarm.
But it won't be easy to implement their vision.
Putting together a multinational force faces tall hurdles, given that NATO is overstretched and U.N. peacekeepers often come from Muslim countries that might not be willing to participate. Then there's the problem of getting the Lebanese army to act against Hezbollah, something Lebanese leaders are deeply reluctant to order.
Nonetheless, Bush and Blair can assert, for now, that they are building bridges to peace in the Middle East, rather than standing in the way of it.