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Powell, Testifying Before Congress, Faces Tough Questioning on Israel

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Members of Congress are challenging Secretary of State Colin Powell on the Bush administration’s policy toward Israel and the role Israel and its adversaries will play in the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.

While seeking more clarification, lawmakers were encouraged by administration comments that the coalition intends to act against groups that target Israel.

Testifying before the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday, Powell said the administration believes Israel “has a right to defend itself in the way that it sees fit and appropriate.”

Powell said he understood Israel’s rationale for sending troops into the West Bank to crack down on Palestinian terror — though he considered the move counter-productive.

In addition, Powell stood by State Department criticism of Israel’s policy of targeted killing of Palestinian terror leaders, saying it was detrimental to the goal of finding a political solution in order to end Israeli-Palestinian violence.

“We have felt that targeted assassinations — however much the State of Israel believes they are appropriate and uses their forces to conduct such activities — we believe that those kinds of activities are hurtful to the overall process,” Powell said. “We are trying to reach a point where such terrorism is stopped, such violence is stopped, and the need for such kind of response is no longer present.”

Appearing during a week of tension between the U.S. and Israeli governments following the assassination of an Israeli cabinet member and strong Israeli reprisals, lawmakers sought to clarify U.S. policy toward Israel.

Specifically, they were concerned about the call by a State Department spokesman Monday for the Israel Defense Force to withdraw immediately from areas of the West Bank it entered after the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi last week by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israel said the operation, during which it entered six West Bank cities, was necessary to head off terror attacks.

At least five Palestinians were killed Wednesday in a special IDF raid on the village of Beit Rima north of Ramallah in the West Bank. In addition, 40 suspected terrorists — most from the PFLP — were captured.

Israel also announced that it had captured two members of the seven-man cell that killed Ze’evi, though the actual shooter remains at large.

Israel’s Security Cabinet is scheduled to meet in a special session Thursday to consider the American call to withdraw, amid indications Wednesday that the military operation would be cut short.

“The moment we know there is serious intent on the part of the Palestinian Authority to maintain order and bring about a cessation of the violence, the Israeli army will withdraw immediately,” Defense Minister Binyamin Ben- Eliezer said in a statement.

Use of the word “intent” was taken to be a softening of Israel’s terms for withdrawal, as the government previously had demanded that P.A. security forces arrest those responsible for killing Ze’evi and crack down on the PFLP.

“I think the answer to that would truly be laughable,” Ackerman said. “And yet that’s what we’re suggesting to the Israelis after they’ve been going through this for some 50 years.”

Ackerman said it is “telling” that the State Department is having trouble explaining to Israel why it should not carry out targeted assassinations while the United States pursues a similar policy against bin Laden and his followers.

“I could suggest that the reason that the State Department is struggling with this is because the policy is very inconsistent. We’re telling the Israelis to do as we say, and not do as we do,” he said.

“We can’t have a double standard and expect that we’re going to be taken seriously in most of the world,” Rohrabacher said.

“Rest assured that our vision of the coalition’s purpose is to end all terrorism, regardless of the target or claimed motivation,” Armitage wrote in the Oct. 23 letter to Lantos. “We have been attacking these groups for years, are going after these groups now, and will continue to do so until they no longer represent a threat to the United States, our citizens, our interests, and our friends and allies.”

Armitage also said that “rhetoric will not suffice” and that states that sponsor terrorism, including Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Authority will have to take concrete action to win U.S. favor.

“We will not allow them to cherry-pick some terrorist organizations while ignoring, or worse, aiding others,” Armitage wrote. “In short, state sponsors must definitively act to satisfy our counterterrorism concerns before we will consider removing our unilateral sanctions.”

American Jewish leaders said they were encouraged by the congressional support for Israel’s plight.

“These members are raising some serious questions about U.S. policy toward Israel. And it is clear that concern for Israel and its war on terrorism runs far and deep among the members of this committee and the rest of the Congress,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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