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The declaration by President George W. Bush that the United States will protect Israel from Iranian attack, even militarily, is a milestone in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, and a step on the road to formalizing a defense pact between the two countries. The wording was agreed on ahead of time between the White House and the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, and Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened the weekly cabinet meeting by thanking Bush. Thus, the exchange of declarations was made official.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to respond publicly to the threats of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who called for wiping Israel off the map and denied the Holocaust. Ahmedinejad made the Jewish community in North America much more anxious than he did Israel. The combination of fiery rhetoric, overt messianic fervor and the development of nuclear armaments looks like a recipe for a second Holocaust, and America did not want to do nothing in the face of such a danger.

The American response was three-fold. The administration increased its diplomatic efforts against Iran's nuclearization, and managed to mobilize a solid majority in the international community to send the issue to the United Nations Security Council. Diplomacy was backed up with statements by politicians and public opinion polls in the U.S. that supported an attack on Iran. The third element was the public defense umbrella that Bush raised over Israel.

In political life there are no free lunches, and Bush's statements have a price. They remove the possibility - if there ever was one - of Israel taking matters into its own hands and attacking Iran's nuclear facilities as it attacked the Iraqi reactor in 1981. Similarly, NATO members, which enjoy American protection, must consult Washington before they use force against common threats. The armies of Denmark, Great Britain or Tukey are subject to joint command and consultation.

Bringing Israel in under the American umbrella constitutes a change in the administration's stance, which over the past year backed up Israeli hints of a possible attack on Iran. Cheney publicly warned the Europeans that Israel's patience might run out. The Pentagon announced it was supplying "bunker-buster" bombs to Israel, which can destroy underground nuclear facilities.

Now it is over. The decision if and when to act against Iran will be made in the White House, not in the underground headquarters of the General Staff. The immediate result was that Olmert stopped his threatening statements to Iran, and eliminated the "Iranian segment" of his speech at the Hezliya Conference.

A debate has been going on for years in Israel over the the usefulness of a formal defense pact with the U.S. Shimon Peres tried to promote the idea when he was prime minister, and spoke recently with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Olmert about an "umbrella of protection against Iran." Ehud Barak obtained at Camp David a pledge of a defense pact from president Bill Clinton in exchange for a permanent agreement with the Palestinians. The security establishment has expressed doubts about a defense pact, concerned over the loss of freedom to act if Israel has to ask permission for every targeted killing in Gaza. The agreed-on wording was that Israel would protect itself by itself, with the help of U.S. money and weapons. Now Israel's room to maneuver has been curtailed, but Bush's declaration relates to a specific enemy, Iran, and not to other threats that Israel will deal with by itself.

Important as it is, the Bush declaration is still far from being a formal defense pact, anchored in a written agreement and approved by the Senate. The American umbrella will have value only after its details are hammered in terms of joint operational planning, and with an understanding of the circumstances in which the U.S. will offer its assistance to Israel. Otherwise it will remain up in the air, as an expression of support by the U.S. administration for its favorite candidate, Olmert.