Does Kana Fallout Show a Rift Between White House and State?

It was as if the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Foggy Bottom lengthened, well, to the distance between Jerusalem and Miami Beach. President Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, staked what appeared to be radically different approaches to the aftermath of an Israeli strike on the village of Kana in southern Lebanon that killed dozens of civilians.

Less then a day after Rice, in Jerusalem, extracted an agreement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to temporarily suspend Israel’s air attacks on Lebanon — reportedly because she was “sickened” by the deaths — Bush was telling supporters in Florida that Israel has a right to defend itself.

“It is important to remember this crisis began with Hezbollah’s unprovoked terrorist attacks against Israel,” Bush said. “Israel is exercising its right to defend itself, and we mourn the loss of innocent life, both in Lebanon and in Israel.”

Around the same time, on a flight back to Washington, Rice was saying why she favored the suspension of air attacks: “Most importantly, it’s meant to allow the Israelis to look at their operations of the kind that caused Kana so that that won’t happen again, to have an investigation,” she said.

Earlier, in Jerusalem, Rice barely contained her frustration with Israel for failing to notify her of Sunday’s pre-dawn attack before her meetings with top officials.

“I first learned of this tragic loss of life as I was meeting with the Israeli defense minister this morning and once again I was reiterating our strong concern about the impact of Israeli military operations on innocent civilians during crisis,” she said.

In an interview on Fox News, Bush called Kana an “awful situation,” without naming the village.

“I think there’s been a lot of pressure on Israel to stop,” he said. “But Israel’s a sovereign nation and, you know, she will defend herself.”

Hezbollah launched the war July 12 with rocket attacks and a cross-border raid in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were abducted.

Since then, at least 530 Lebanese, the vast majority civilians, have died; over 50 Israelis — about half of them civilians — have been killed.

Some Jewish analysts said the difference between Bush and Rice was more of style than of substance.

“Bush doesn’t care what people think. He’s not being diplomatic, he’s being honest and straightforward,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Others said there was an evident split.

Former State Department staffers blamed it on the exigencies Rice faces in attempting to find a way out of the war, while the Bush administration backs Israel’s attempt to crush a terrorist group.

“Condoleezza Rice has been out there, she looked people in the eye,” said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “You’ve got to appreciate that, for her, the emotional impact of this has been great.”

The high number of civilian deaths, and the media storm that has ensued in the Arab world, created pressures, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The Kana attack has added a layer of concern for people in the State Department who may be concerned that this is complicating American interests in the region,” he said.

Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute who has close administration ties, agreed that the split resulted in part from the natural difference between a White House focused on the whole forest and its top diplomat, who was clearing it tree by tree.

“The secretary is doing the hour-to-hour, and the president is not,” she said.

However, Pletka said Rice, who is known for her loyalty to Bush, was less responsible for the split than was a departmental culture naturally more susceptible to international opinion.

“There’s only so much pressure from the international community that Foggy Bottom can tolerate,” Pletka said. “When you have the Europeans and the Arabs beating down your door 24/7, it’s harder to stay true to your principles.”

Ed Abington, another former deputy assistant secretary of state who served multiple times in the Middle East, said he suspected Olmert was taking his cues directly from the White House.

“He thinks he has Bush’s authorization to keep up the attacks,” said Abington, who has represented Arab governments as a lobbyist.

“Bush, as evidenced by his statement in Miami, sees this as a proxy war against Iran,” Hezbollah’s principal backer, Abington said. “Hezbollah has to be defeated in order to teach Iran a lesson.”

Shimon Peres, Israel’s deputy prime minister, who was set to meet with Rice on Tuesday in Washington, ridiculed the idea that the White House was somehow guiding the war.

“The United States never asked from Israel anything to do except to defend ourselves,” Peres said at a briefing hosted by the Washington Institute.

The United States and Israel want Hezbollah neutralized and the abducted soldiers returned before a cease-fire.

Rice’s job was to persuade the international community that an immediate cease-fire would be counterproductive, and buy Israel enough time to disable Hezbollah in the South.

However, after Kana, the international community seemed more resolute in reversing the sequence, calling for an immediate cease-fire before dealing with the removal of Hezbollah.

“First step: immediate cessation of the hostilities in order to get a sustainable cease-fire,” French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Monday. “This is the necessary precondition for alleviating the intolerable suffering of the civilians.”

France is considered key to establishing the multinational buffer force that would keep Hezbollah out of the South.

By Tuesday, the State Department appeared to be back on administration message: Hezbollah bore ultimate responsibility for the deaths in Kana.

“We all mourn the loss of innocent life here,” spokesman Sean McCormack said. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing. But that loss of innocent life came about because Hezbollah launched an unprovoked attack on Israel.”

Rice, for her part, appeared to tire of questions about how she felt about being blindsided by the attack.

“I have had more questions about how I felt,” she said Monday before landing.

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