WHEN it comes to Israel, most reporting tends to resemble a predictable cliche. Whatever action Israel takes is evaluated without context, without history and with the implied suggestion that it is "harmful to the peace process."
During the past week or so, it would be possible to conclude from news reports that Israel had launched a largely unprovoked attack against Lebanon.
And it is not just the news media that disdains history and context when commenting on the Middle East. President Clinton, no doubt tutored by the State Department (never a friend of Israel's), added to the general confusion by praising Syria for its "restraint" in the face of the fighting.
What barely gets mentioned, until the 19th paragraph or so, is that Israel was retaliating for the killings of seven Israeli soldiers and the firing of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel from Lebanon.
What is further neglected is the fact that Syria is the de facto power in Lebanon. The Lebanese government of Beirut is basically a fiction. Indeed, the Syrians have never accepted the legitimacy of Lebanon -- as they have never accepted the existence of Israel.
The train of events which has resulted in suffering for civilians on both sides of the Israel/Lebanon border these past two weeks (there have been an estimated 120,000 Lebanese refugees fleeing north and 150,000 Israelis forced to huddle in bomb shelters) was put into motion by Syria when it signed an agreement with Iran in 1983 establishing an enclave in the Bekaa valley for Hezbollah, or the Party of God. Hezbollah, a terrorist group dedicated to the total destruction of Israel, is financed and backed by Iran but supplied by the Syrians.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Steven Emerson, an expert on international terrorism, reproduced this quote from a Hezbollah communique following the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York: "We declare our solidarity with anyone who would rid the world of the Zionist interlopers and Western paganism." Hezbollah clearly doesn't understand that it is Israel that is harming "the peace process."
According to Mr. Emerson, Israel has been privately warning Syria for the past six weeks to rein in Hezbollah. Damascus has been silent in return. What Israel is signaling by its attack on Hezbollah is that Syria cannot simultaneously talk peace at the bargaining table and continue to arm and support terrorists who kill Israelis on the ground. Syria can control Hezbollah, if it so chooses. And if it did so, that would be a hopeful sign for the "peace process." But in any case, Israel must defend herself.
This is not a difficult concept to grasp in other contexts. Following the failed assassination attempt on former President George Bush, we launched a retaliatory attack upon Iraq -- inevitably killing, wounding and making homeless some innocent civilians. We were justified in taking this action even though Iraq had not succeeded in its plan to kill Mr. Bush.
One trusts that even with the uncertain leadership of President Clinton, we would respond forcefully to any and all attacks against our citizens here or abroad. If terrorists, armed and supported by Nicaragua, were launching rockets into Texas from Mexico, one hopes that we would do more than alert the United Nations.
It's ironic that Israel is taking such a public relations hit at the very time that we are once again considering whether to come to the military aid of Bosnia's besieged Moslems. Isn't Bosnia an object lesson in what becomes of weak powers unable to defend themselves against aggression? The arms embargo -- which disadvantages Bosnia but not Serbia -- ought to have been ended several months ago. Instead, Bosnia has been left to the mercy of its enemy. Israel has avoided that fate.
Israel is still the only democracy in the Middle East -- the only country where it is even remotely possible that the Supreme Court would overturn the conviction of an accused war criminal -- as happened last week with John Demjanjuk -- because the rule of law demanded it. In a region that runs on tribal loyalties and absolute subservience to power -- Israel runs on law.
Yes, Israel resorts to violence when violently attacked -- but for that it deserves sympathy, not condemnation.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.