WASHINGTON – President Bush's unflagging support for Israel is in a sudden downward spiral after the White House (search) sharply criticized Israel's military operations in Gaza (search) and the United States allowed the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Jewish state.
It was an unusual double setback, prompted by Israel's demolition of Palestinian homes and an attack on Palestinian demonstrators Wednesday in which at least eight people, mostly children and teenagers, were killed.
Israel informed the Bush administration it had not planned to harm the demonstrators in Gaza. At first, Bush declined to pass judgment, saying he wanted to review Israel's explanation.
But in a sudden turnabout, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) lashed out at Israel, the White House issued a statement criticizing Israel on humanitarian grounds and the United States dropped plans to veto — or at least weaken — an Arab resolution at the U.N. condemning Israel for the housing demolitions and the attack on Palestinian demonstrators.
By abstaining, as it almost never does when Israel is under assault in the Security Council, the Bush administration permitted the resolution to pass, 14-0.
The U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N., James Cunningham, said, "While we believe that Israel has the right to act to defend itself and its citizens, we do not see that the operations in Gaza in the last few days serve the purposes of peace and security."
At the State Department, after telephone calls to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and to Dov Weisglass, chief of staff for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Powell said Israel had expressed its regret.
"Nevertheless," said Powell, "it is a tragic incident."
He added, "I believe the activities of the Israeli defense forces in Gaza in recent days have caused a problem and have worsened the situation and, I think, made it more difficult for us to move forward and get back into the peace process."
Then the White House press office issued a statement accusing Israel of hurting the humanitarian situation in Gaza and calling on Israel to withdraw from the territory.
Israel has defended its foray into Gaza as a security measure against terror groups. On Tuesday, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Powell that weapons including rocket-propelled grenades were being shipped to Palestinian terror groups through tunnels that sometimes were constructed under civilian homes.
The White House statement said the administration would consult with Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt to try to find an effective way to deal with weapons smuggling.
But the statement expressed deep regret over "the loss of life of innocent Palestinian civilians today in Gaza," and said the deaths "serve as a grim reminder of the wisdom" of Israel pulling out of the territory.
Only a day earlier, Bush told thousands of American Jews attending a conference held by the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Israel "had every right to defend itself from terror" and that Palestinians must renounce violence and reject failed leaders.
Cheers rang through the hotel ballroom, and there were chants of "four more years."
Bush has been considered among the U.S. presidents must friendly to Israel. His political managers hope that American Jews, who usually vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, will support his re-election in what is shaping up as a tight race with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
At the same time, though, Arab and European governments have been at odds with the administration over its support for Sharon, the war in Iraq and over revelations that Iraqi prisoners were abused by their American jailers.
Meanwhile, the State Department late Wednesday released an interview Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gave to Al-Jazeera, the Arab television network, calling for "restraint on both sides so we don't have innocents suffer."
"All people have the right of self-defense," said Armitage, but he added, there has been "a lack of restraint" on the Israeli side.
The appearance on Al-Jazeera was less than a month after the State Department accused the network of "a pattern of false reporting" on Iraq.