By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006
President Bush said yesterday the United States would defend Israel militarily if necessary against Iran, a statement that appeared to be his most explicit commitment to Israel's defense.
In an interview with Reuters, Bush said he is concerned about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "menacing talk" about Israel, such as his comments denying the Holocaust and saying Israel should be wiped off the map.
"Israel is a solid ally of the United States. We will rise to Israel's defense, if need be. So this kind of menacing talk is disturbing. It's not only disturbing to the United States, it's disturbing for other countries in the world, as well," Bush said.
Asked whether he meant the United States would rise to Israel's defense militarily, Bush said: "You bet, we'll defend Israel."
The Jewish state sought some sort of military alliance with the United States shortly after it was founded in 1948, but was rebuffed by several presidents, partly out of fear of offending Arabs. Since then, Israel has established the principle of securing its own defense, including a nuclear deterrent, backed by large weapons sales by the United States.
Past presidents have spoken elliptically about helping Israel, a close ally, in a conflict. The United States has no military alliance with Israel, though President Bill Clinton dangled the prospect of a military alliance as part of a final peace deal, said Dennis Ross, a senior Clinton adviser on the region.
Ross said he could not recall a president ever saying so clearly the United States would come to Israel's defense. But he said it is a "logical extension" of existing policy, because Israel has never before faced the threat of a foe with a possible nuclear weapon.
"This proves once again the United States is the best friend and ally of Israel," said Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon. "We are very proud of this special relationship, which is the cornerstone of stability in the Middle East, for the mutual benefit of Israel, the U.S. and all peace-loving countries in the region and beyond."
The White House played down Bush's comments, saying they are in line with previous remarks and do not represent new policy. But examples provided by the White House were not as explicit, with Bush publicly saying he was "committed to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state" or "committed to the safety of Israel."
The White House yesterday also provided a partial transcript of an interview in July 2004, in which Bush replied "yes" when asked whether U.S. presidents are obligated to defend Israel. The White House did not identify the newspaper, which apparently did not report the remark.
Last month, in an interview on CNBC, Vice President Cheney was asked whether the United States would provide military assistance if Iran attacked. "I don't think there's any question but what we would support Israel under those circumstances," Cheney said.