Administration, Members of Congress Try to Prevent Anti-israel Backlash

An effort is being made both by the Bush administration and Congress to prevent a backlash of criticism against Israel for its capture of an Islamic fundamentalist leader and the apparent subsequent murder of an American Marine officer.

“We have continuing and close contacts with Israel on this situation,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Tuesday.

“Israel is a strong ally of the United States,” he said. “We have an enduring and vibrant relationship, and interest in continuing their security. That certainly has not changed.”

Fitzwater, who spoke to reporters after President Bush met for 90 minutes with Secretary of State James Baker, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and other national security advisers, said experts are studying a videotape purportedly showing the hanging of Lt. Col. William Higgins by a pro-Iranian Shiite Moslem group.

But U.S. officials have not been able to determine whether the man shown hanging from a makeshift gallows is Higgins. There was also no indication yet whether the incident took place Monday or some time earlier.

The Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, which kidnapped Higgins in February 1988, said it killed Higgins on Monday, because Israel had not released its leader, Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, who was seized by Israeli commandos on July 28, in a raid on his home in southern Lebanon.

The organization, which is believed to be a front group for the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah, or Party of God, threatened to kill another American hostage, Joseph Cicippio, if Israelis did not release Obeid. The deadline was extended for another 48 hours on Tuesday.

After Higgins’ death was announced early Monday, Bush cut short a two-day trip to the West, and met Monday night with national security advisers and then with members of Congress.

BUSH URGES RELEASE OF ALL HOSTAGES

He issued a statement late Monday night, which was seen as implied criticism of Israel.

“On Friday, I said that the taking of any hostages was not helpful to the Middle East peace process,” Bush said in the statement. “The brutal and tragic events of today have underscored the validity of that statement.”

The president said that he now wanted “to go beyond that statement with an urgent call for all, all parties who hold hostages in the Middle East, to release them forthwith as a humanitarian gesture, to begin to reverse the cycle of violence in that region.”

Fitzwater denied Tuesday that the Bush statement was aimed at putting pressure on Israel. “The statement last night applies to all countries in the region,” he said. “The statement speaks for itself.”

In his statement Monday night, Bush made clear that the United States does not support an Israeli proposal, issued Monday before Higgins’ death was announced, that it would trade Obeid and all Shiite prisoners held by Israel if the Shiites would free three Israeli soldiers held in southern Lebanon, as well as all American and other civilian hostages held there.

“Our firm opposition to negotiating with hostage-takers was further reinforced in my discussions this evening with the administration and consultations with the congressional leadership,” Bush said.

“We do not negotiate for the release of hostages,” Fitzwater reiterated Tuesday. But he stressed that “Israel is a sovereign nation. They have a different policy with regard to hostages than we have.”

DOLE STATEMENT ASSAILED

But Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), a leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should cooperate with Israel in attempting such a swap.

The most public criticism of Israel came from Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who said Monday on the Senate floor that Israel should have notified Washington before taking action that might endanger American lives.

Dole took the floor again Tuesday to stress that Israel and America are on the same side.

But he again said, “I cannot condone, as a thinking person, how any government — ours, the Israeli government or any other civilized government — could embark on this unilateral, freelancing course, without regard to the effect on innocent citizens of other friendly countries, without regard to our common front against terrorism.”

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) called Dole’s remarks “a contemptible slander.”

“It must be said loudly, clearly and unequivocally that there is only one party responsible for the murder of Col. Higgins, and that is his Shiite Moslem captors,” he said Monday.

“Let us put the blame where it belongs: on the outrageous terrorists, and even, yes, on some of the Western powers that are willing to countenance them,” said Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

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