Sharon’s restraint wins kudos in D.C.

WASHINGTON, June 4 (JTA) — Israel’s strategy of not retaliating against the Palestinians for recent suicide bombings seems to have ingratiated the country with the United States and other allies.

Pressure increasingly is falling on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to quell violence in the region or face an Israeli retaliation that will not be condemned by the United States.

Arafat’s cease-fire call last weekend has helped his position, but officials in America — as well as in Israel — are looking to see whether Arafat really is interested in peace or just in buying time.

Appearing on television Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his restraint.

“He’s under enormous pressure, and I’m glad that so far he is pacing the response and he is giving the other side, the Palestinian side, time to act on what they’ve said they were going to do,” Powell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But there seems to be a growing understanding in Washington that Israel can hold off only for so long and that any significant Palestinian action could prompt a strong Israeli military reaction.

In conversations with Israeli and American Jewish leaders over the last week, White House officials signaled that they understand Israel’s predicament.

“There is a lot of understanding in the Bush administration that there is a limit to how much can be held back,” said an American Jewish leader who met at the White House on May 31 with President Bush, his advisers and Israeli President Moshe Katsav. “There is real empathy.”

An Israeli diplomat in Washington said Israel needs the United States’ blessing less than its understanding if it takes strong retaliatory action after the death of more Israelis.

“Everyone understands that if there is another serious Palestinian provocation, Sharon has to do something,” the diplomat said. “Americans will not support what Israel does, but will understand it.”

David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the United States and Israel must act delicately so they do not appear to be coordinating policy too closely, which could be misinterpreted by the Arab states as U.S. endorsement of Israeli military strikes.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to get a U.S. official to cheer when you hit the other side,” Makovsky said. But listening closely to the administration’s words can be important, he said.

For example, if the United States responded to an Israeli attack by saying that both sides need to show restraint, it would be a much weaker condemnation than Powell’s April criticism of Israeli actions as “excessive and disproportionate.”

While the United States may be more willing to back Israeli action privately, the force employed still will need to be relatively proportional to the Palestinian attack that provokes it, Makovsky said.

Sunday, Powell’s comments made clear that he understood Sharon may be backed into a corner, and will keep a military scenario as one option.

“They have not suddenly launched military attacks, but I’m sure they are reserving that right to themselves,” Powell said on CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.”

Powell’s remarks on some of the main points of friction between Israel and the United States showed that the United States is less willing to take Israel to task than it has been in recent weeks.

Asked about Israel’s use of American-made F-16 planes to attack Palestinian targets, Powell conceded that “a good deal” of Israeli military equipment is American-made and said he hopes the F-16s would not be used again. Last month, Vice President Dick Cheney said Israel should not use such weapons.

Powell also sought on Sunday to portray Israel’s policy of allowing for “natural growth” of settlements as a matter to be discussed in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Powell expressed sympathy for the quandary Israel faces on the issue, noting that families grow in the settlements as they do anywhere else.

“The American position is that we believe that two sides have to discuss this ‘expanding of existing settlements’ issue,” Powell said on CNN.

Since Israel’s cease-fire announcement two weeks ago, international pressure has focused on Arafat to end suicide bombing and other terror attacks, call for a cessation of violence and commit to security talks. Arafat’s weekend call for a cease-fire — greeted with skepticism by many in Washington — is being tested.

“The United States believes that the best way to test this proposal is to follow what Arafat does and not just what he says,” Makovsky said. “This will be the prism through which the U.S. looks through the current process.”

Israel is specifically seeking the re-arrest of Palestinian terrorists, released en masse by the P.A. when violence began last fall.

The Americans have kept William Burns, assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, in the region to monitor developments. Speculation also is growing that CIA Director George Tenet will return to the Middle East to facilitate security talks.

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