Israel has entered its war against Hamas with much more than American arms in its arsenal.
In the wake of this week’s terrorist attacks, President Clinton has authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to send long-sought sensitive information about Hamas activists to Israeli officials.
Although the United States has a mixed history in assisting Israel in times of crisis, this time there can be little doubt about the American resolve.
From the White House to the State Department to the Congress, U.S. officials are working to help Israel.
While critics charge that the measures are mere “window dressing,” Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders maintain that any assistance is helpful.
“There is no one silver magic bullet that will in an instant end suicide bombings,” said Neal Sher, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby. “But the United States’ actions can only help.”
For its part, the Clinton administration is hoping to send a strong signal that it will stand with Israel in its battle against Muslim extremists.
In addition to the intelligence sharing, the administration has authorized – and already begun to send – bomb detection equipment and technical personnel to assist the Israelis.
According to Israeli officials, soldiers will use the bomb detection equipment to search for explosives at checkpoints in the West Bank and on Israel’s borders with the Palestinian self-rule areas.
The most advanced sensors, similar to those used in airports to search for weapons, are en route to Israel as well.
Israeli officials refused to provide details about intelligence sharing, but welcomed the administration’s support.
“The United States has a definite role and this equipment can only serve to help us,” said an Israeli official here.
Members of Congress also praised the administration’s move.
“I believe we have accurate information of who these people are, where they are and what they are doing,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
“In the past Israel has felt that the United States ought to be more forthcoming with its intelligence,” he said, adding, “Now is the time for the U.S. to be as forthcoming as humanly possible.”
At least two counterterrorism experts, however, criticized the Clinton administration’s plan as falling short of the necessary steps needed to wage a successful war against terrorism.
“Sending a terrorism team to Israel is like sending an air conditioner to to Eskimos,” Larry Johnson, a former director of counterterrorism at the State Department, told CNN.
Johnson called Clinton’s plan “window dressing.”
Terrorism expert Steven Emerson also criticized Clinton’s plan, saying that it would have “a marginal effect.”
But these assessments are clearly in the minority.
Clinton has singnaled his intention to support Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres if Israel needs to enter Palestinian self-rule areas to root out terrorists.
When asked whether Israel should show restraint and not retaliate, Clinton said, “We have to stand with the proposition that those who are responsible for this should be held accountable.”
While the administration has the greatest role to play in the short term, Congress, with the power of the purse, can lead the charge to prod Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on Hamas.
And that is exactly what congressional leaders are doing.
Congress will take a “hard look at assistance to the Palestinian Authority,” said Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole (R-Kan).
“Unless and until serious anti-terrorist actions are implemented by Chairman Arafat, it is difficult to justify continued U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority,” Dole said this week at a campaign rally in New York.
The United States has pledged $500 million over three years to the Palestinians. Legislation known as the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act ties continued funding for the Palestinians to the end of terrorist attacks.
In a report released last week, Clinton found that the Palestine Liberation Organization is in compliance with its accords with Israel.
However, the report also found that the “Palestinian security services need to act more expeditiously about information they receive” about terrorist activities.
The overall finding of compliance allows funding to continue for another six months.
In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, is circulating a letter that puts Arafat on notice that Congress will closely scrutinize his actions in the coming weeks.
Gilman reminded Arafat in the letter that there would be no U.S. assistance unless the forces of the Palestinian Authority “resolutely apprehend, prosecute, convict and imprison terrorists, and cooperate with Israel in the pre-emption of terrorist actions” and the “disarming of civilians.”
Gilman has scheduled hearings for March 12 that will investigate PLO compliance and its efforts to combat terrorism.
The House was expected to overwhelmingly pass a resolution this week that condemns the bombings and calls on Arafat and all elected representatives of the Palestinian Council to “take all possible actions” against terrorists.
On another front, Congress has pledged to cooperate with the White House in its effort to elicit the support of America’s allies to pressure Arab states into condemning terrorism and shutting down terrorist bases, specifically in Syria and Iran.
Congress is also scheduled to take up a measure that “goes a long way towards cutting of Iran’s access to foreign investments,” Sher said.
The legislation would ban American trade benefits for and investments in foreign firms that do business with Iran.
Congress is also working to stop terrorist groups from raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in the United States.
The House is expected to begin consideration of the long-delayed counterterrorism bill this month. The Senate passed a weaker version of the measure last summer.
Meanwhile, as the was against Hamas rages in Israel, American officials are considering beefing up security at U.S. installations such as government buildings and airports.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that as they step up their efforts to assist Israel, the United states could once again become a target for Muslim extremists.