WASHINGTON, July 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Aggressive acts like the ones Hizballah and Hamas have perpetrated against Israel in recent weeks are rare against a country that has the strongest military in the region and the world's only military superpower as its chief sponsor.

The raids are attributable less to U.S. engagement in Iraq, for instance, than to Washington's disengagement in recent years from the Middle East peace process.

Since the start of his administration in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush has put very little pressure on Israel to use restraint when dealing with its enemies, says Nathan Brown, who studies the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Bush Administration Seen As Out Of Step

As a result, Brown says, the Israeli government has dealt more harshly with Palestinian militants and their leaders since Bush came to office. Brown notes that while United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are calling for a cease-fire and a UN force to stabilize southern Lebanon, the Bush administration is merely calling for restraint on all sides.

"The United States has taken itself out of the equation," Brown said. "And by doing that it is, in essence, allowing this confrontation to continue. The United States could step in and say, 'We've got to find a way out.' And instead what they seem to be saying [to Israel] is: 'We understand what you're going through. Do what you need to do; just try not to inflict too many civilian casualties.' "

According to Brown, one way to stop the fighting would be to bring pressure on Iran and Syria, both of which are said to be strong supporters of Hamas and Hizballah. But, Brown says, the United States has few opportunities to exert indirect pressure on Hamas and Hizballah because Syria's troops have been withdrawn from Lebanon and Iran has Washington preoccupied with its nuclear program.

Reduced Options

"We want to deter them [Hizballah and Hamas]," Brown said. "The Israelis want to deter them, and we have absolutely no way of doing so: the Iranians, we have a full nuclear agenda with, and, the Syrians, we pressured to leave Lebanon. So at this point, the Americans and the Israelis really don't have a lot of options when dealing with [Hizballah and Hamas]."

Brown adds that if the United States chose to get involved, it could achieve at least a short-term diplomatic or political resolution because of its influence with Israel. But its failure to do so, Brown contends, is creating the power vacuum that emboldened Hamas and Hizballah to challenge Israel.

Murhaf Jouejati, the Syrian-born director of Middle East studies at George Washington University in Washington, believes the Bush administration is hoping Israel will cripple or even destroy Hizballah. Otherwise, he says, Washington would have led the drive to end the bloodshed by now.

"[U.S. disengagement] is a major factor, and this is why we do not have a cease-fire in place today," Jouejati says. "I believe the United States is delaying discussions of [a cease-fire] -- or at least delaying a [UN] resolution that would impose a cease-fire -- in order to give time for Israel to try, as best as it can, to destroy Hizballah. Now of course the down part of this is that in the process, many civilians are being killed."

Coordinated Actions?

Another possible reason for the timing of the Hizballah raid is that it was coordinated with Hamas. After all, the two actions had close similarities. Jouejati concedes that Hizballah may have felt some solidarity with Hamas, but he stresses that it had more compelling reasons of self-preservation.

"I believe that Hizballah was under domestic pressure from the Lebanese government to disarm or disband or to integrate itself into the Lebanese Army," Jouejati says. "And we know that the Lebanese government has been holding talks about national unity and national reconciliation. So I think it is within this context that this happened."

Jouejati says he expects Hizballah will survive, despite the punishing artillery and rocket barrages from Israel. He says Hizballah is far too well rooted in southern Lebanon to be defeated militarily, much less eradicated.

And eventually, Jouejati predicts, Hizballah will return to haunt both Israel and the United States.

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