WASHINGTON - Last Monday, an Israeli official sat in nail-bitting tension. "Everything depends on this dinner," he said, referring to the meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her boss, President George W. Bush.
The next day he was calmer. Bush listened to Rice, he told her his views and American policy remained unchanged. For Bush, the president specializing in setting precedents, history does not repeat itself: The Qana crisis ended without stopping the war. In fact, without having any impact at all.
When Rice appeared on television on Monday night, she uttered what are by now well known phrases: "lasting agreement," "no returning to the status quo ante," "control of the Lebanese government over the entire territory is the basis of a cease-fire." In relation to Qana, she blamed Hezbollah: "It's the sad truth of this kind of warfare that civilians very often get mixed up in the fight because the terrorists are very often intertwined in villages and in towns."
The sole, small difference between Rice's message and that of Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who appeared on television before her, regards the duration of the fighting. Rice referred to "days, not weeks," and Peres said "weeks, not months." In any case, the decision does not only depend on them. Continued disagreements at the UN Security Council are likely to prove Peres right.
During their meeting on Monday, Peres spent most of the time relaying the following message to the Secretary of State: We are winning. Peres gave Rice details of the numbers of rockets captured, launchers destroyed and Hezbollah fighters killed.
The Security Council is meant to meet today to discuss the makeup of the multinational force that will be deployed to the region, but a key state, one meant to lead the others, announced on Monday it intended to boycott the meeting - unless it has a last minute change of heart. France believes that a cease-fire must first be agreed to and only then a political arrangement can follow.
The U.S. would like to see the order reversed. Bush, sources in Washington say, would like to emerge from the Lebanon crisis a winner. In the absence of an unequivocal victory over Hezbollah, only a convincing political settlement, backed by tough conditions, can provide the goods.
If Israel's leadership is astounded by the Bush administration's support, the American public's backing is also impressive. In a Gallup Poll a few days ago, 80 percent of the respondents said that Israel's action in Lebanon was justified. Only one in 10 Americans thinks otherwise. These support figures are equal to those of the Israeli public.
Nonetheless, there is fine print in a poll. First, it was held at a time when the Qana incident just began receiving air time, and the figures may have changed since then. But this is not for certain: According to a Zogby poll published yesterday, in which the questions were differently phrased, more than 60 percent of Americans blame Hezbollah for the outbreak of fighting, compared to 12 percent who blame Israel.
Nonetheless, even if almost all Americans believe that the operation is justified, nearly every second American thinks that it has been excessive. Furthermore, one-third support an "immediate cease-fire."
Among the Democrats, 50 percent think that the U.S. supports Israel too much, which is food for thought in light of the possibility that they may win the November elections. Among Republicans, on the other hand, 57 percent believe that U.S. support for Israel is just right, compared to only 36 percent of the Democrats.