WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 (JTA) — Strengthened American resolve to fight terrorism could have a significant impact on the Middle East, building sympathy for Israeli tactics and a coalition of interests among Israel and moderate Arab states, analysts say.
Speaking Wednesday, a day after hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out a much more aggressive American anti- terrorism strategy.
“I think when you are attacked by a terrorist and you know who the terrorist is and you can fingerprint back to the cause of the terror, you should respond,” Powell said a news conference.
The United States often has called on Israel to exercise restraint when it suffers Palestinian terrorist attacks, saying retaliation only escalates the cycle of violence and doesn’t end conflict.
On Wednesday, however, Powell took a different tone.
“If you are able to stop terrorist attacks, you should stop terrorist attacks,” he said, adding that the United States is building a coalition to “go after terrorism, wherever we find it in the world.”
President Bush on Wednesday also said the United States “will use all our resources” to respond to what he called an “act of war.”
On Tuesday, Bush said that the United States would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
That appears to put the United States in line with Israeli policy. In recent months Israel has held the Palestinian Authority responsible for all Palestinian terror attacks — regardless of which group actually carries them out — because it shelters the groups in P.A.-controlled territory.
It is too soon to determine the long-term effects of the attacks, experts say, but many believe they could substantially alter U.S. policy toward the Mideast.
For one, some experts say, it will be difficult for the State Department to continue its strident condemnations of Israel’s policy of targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists.
“I think there will be additional understanding for what Israel is facing,” said Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli diplomat in Washington. “It is difficult for Americans to criticize Israel for going after the masterminds of suicide bombers when that is what the United States will have to do.”
But Shibley Telhami, a professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland, said the response could be more complex.
“I think there is no question that at the popular level, there will be more sympathy” for Israel, Telhami said. At the governmental level, however, “it may not translate into empathy for either” Israel or the Palestinians.
Jon Alterman, an analyst with the U.S. Institute for Peace, said Israel’s targeted killing policy remains illegal under American law, and the State Department therefore will continue to condemn it.
But Ben-David said he thinks Americans will be swayed on a much more visceral level.
“The scenes of Palestinians celebrating in the streets is not going to go over well with some in America,” Ben-David said. “If ties” from Tuesday’s attack “are shown to any of the Palestinian groups, then I think Arafat is going to be in a very different situation than he was under the Clinton administration or what he is in today.”
Leon Fuerth, a national security adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, said the attack will force the Bush administration to reexamine many of its assumptions — such as the belief that the United States can take a more aloof posture in the Middle East and that terrorism can be fought through the courts rather than on the battlefield.
“The kinds of decisions the president makes are the kinds of things that might substantially change how he feels about what Israel does,” said Fuerth, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University.
It is still unclear who is responsible for hijacking the airplanes that were used in Tuesday’s attacks, but media reports increasingly are focusing on Osama bin Laden, the renegade Saudi billionaire responsible for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said fighting bin Laden and his followers will be harder than the Persian Gulf War against Iraq was 10 years ago, because Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida organization is widely dispersed and does not have a specific address.
“It is a small group of like-minded bigots that are motivated by anger and a mistaken concept of religion, and seek to destroy everything we stand for,” said Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now president of the Middle East Institute.
Military efforts will not be sufficient against this threat, Walker said, because many U.S. allies unknowingly harbor branches of the group.
“I don’t see how you can go into a cell of people in France with military force,” he said. “This has got to be a comprehensive effort by law enforcement communities, intelligence communities and the governmental leadership.”
But Walker said he believes Middle Eastern states, including both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, will support U.S. efforts because Bin- Laden’s group poses a threat to the entire region.
In addition, Al-Qaida is the largest threat to Saudi Arabia, which means that the Saudis, who have been cutting ties with the United States since the Persian Gulf War, might join an anti-bin Laden coalition as well.
However, a senior official with a major American Jewish organization expressed concern that after a short period of vigorous military efforts, the United States might revert to using law enforcement, rather than war tactics, to combat terrorism.
“The irony of modern life is that the standard of evidence needed to fight a war is much lower than the standard of evidence to convict someone in a U.S. court,” the official said.
The official believes the United States will have to take a pro-active stance against terror, but believes that support for those measures may wane after the initial shock of Tuesday’s attacks wears off.
“A serious war on terrorism would have to uproot the terrorist organizations and not necessarily the ones who have committed the act,” the source said. “It means going after all of the organizations before they organize terrorist attacks and after they organize terrorist attacks.”
Ironically, such a policy of pro-active strikes likely would mirror the Israeli policy of targeted killing that the State Department has condemned for months.
If U.S. action against bin Laden, the Afghani government or other Middle East terrorist threats does take shape, Israel and the Palestinian Authority may find themselves on the same side of the fight.
Walker said he has “direct indications” that the Palestinian Authority will support the United States in any actions against Bin Laden.
David Schenker, an expert on Palestinian affairs with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said many of bin Laden’s followers are Palestinians, but that there is no link between bin Laden and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
There will be a lot of pressure on the Palestinians and on Arab states who resent U.S. policy in the region to join an anti-terrorism coalition.
“I think that we are going to look at this as, nations that don’t cooperate with us are working against us,” Schenker said. “We are not only talking about anti-American terror, we are talking about support for any type of terrorism.”