State Dept. blasts Israel on Orient House

WASHINGTON, Aug. 13 (JTA) — The State Department’s condemnation of the Israeli seizure of Orient House is angering American Jewish leaders, who believe the Jewish state is being held to a double standard.

But amid the rhetoric, there are signs that President Bush is taking a harder stance on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, holding him responsible for the latest terrorist attacks. These conflicting signals are leading to a familiar, confusing dichotomy between the White House and its foreign policy arm.

Many believe the raid on Orient House — the unofficial P.A. headquarters in eastern Jerusalem — was an Israeli attempt to honor American calls for restraint after the suicide bombing of a Jerusalem restaurant Thursday, an attack that killed 15 people. The seizure was seen as a politically symbolic gesture, as opposed to the military measures that the State Department frequently criticizes.

But State Department officials Friday called the seizure a “serious political escalation,” a condemnation unwelcome to the American Jewish community.

“The statement was inappropriate,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “This was a bloodless response to a terrorist attack.”

Hoenlein said there is growing concern about comments emanating from the State Department, which equate Israel’s targeted killings of alleged terror masterminds with the bombings and shootings of Israeli civilians carried out by Palestinian groups.

“People have been trying to be understanding,” Hoenlein said. “But the” U.S. criticism about “the Orient House really sent people off, and I think with good reason.”

On Monday, State Department officials stood by their criticism.

“Orient House has always been a symbol of political dialogue,” a State Department spokesman said. “We’re not happy with an action that seems to imply there is no chance for a resurrection of peace talks.”

The spokesman said there was more logic to previous retaliatory attacks on Fatah or Tanzim headquarters when those Palestinian groups were deemed responsible for carnage.

“We’re concerned about the image it portrays and the likely reaction it’s going to elicit,” the spokesman said. “It’s not in Israel’s interest to hold onto” the building.

Some Israeli activists agree, saying the seizure of Orient House has shifted international attention from the Israeli bombing victims to Israel’s “aggressive” actions.

But while they are frustrated with the State Department’s attitude, American Jewish leaders increasingly are encouraged by Bush’s comments in recent days.

On Monday, the president called on both sides to end the “terrorist acts and the responses,” but placed a special onus on Arafat.

“I think he can do a lot more to be convincing the people on the street to stop these acts of terrorism and the acts of violence,” Bush said of Arafat. “This is a continuing terrorist campaign and we’ve got to stop.”

Bush also said he was willing to have the parties meet with him “at the appropriate time.”

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the White House is making it clear that the onus rests with Arafat.

“President Bush deserves credit that he avoided this idea that ‘everybody’s to blame’ and therefore ‘nobody’s to blame,’ ” said Makovsky. “He has made it clear personally that it is Yasser Arafat who needs to reign in terrorists.”

The president also acknowledged a level of restraint by the Israeli government.

“I appreciate the fact that they do show a moderate restraint,” Bush said of the Israelis. “Sometimes they haven’t, and sometimes they have.”

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