Will U.S. terror war target Palestinians?

Police gather evidence after a recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Jewish groups wonder if the U.S. will next target the Palestinians in their campaign against terror. (Brian Hendler)

Police gather evidence after a recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Jewish groups wonder if the U.S. will next target the Palestinians in their campaign against terror. (Brian Hendler)

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (JTA) — In recent weeks, the United States has ratcheted up pressure on the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat, to crack down on terrorists. But specific demands of the Palestinian Authority have been vague, and the consequences of noncompliance unclear. The next step in the process, many believe, is for the Bush administration to detail its requirements of the Palestinian leadership, and to issue real threats against the Palestinian government if it fails to follow through. "Demands without consequences have rarely had much effect on Arafat," Dennis Ross, former special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton, said in Sunday´s Washington Post. "It is time for a consequence. It is time for an American ultimatum. The ultimatum must be very clear, with specific demands and an unmistakable consequence." With the United States destroying the Al Qaida network and Osama bin Laden faster than anticipated, a window is opening for the Bush administration to use its clout to put real pressure on the Palestinian Authority to control terrorism. No longer concerned about courting Arab states for its anti-terror coalition, the United States can act more unilaterally to aid Israel and pressure Arafat, Middle East analysts say. However, a State Department spokesman said the Bush administration was unlikely to act through ultimatums. "It would be historically inconsistent for us to do that," the spokesman said. "We´ve been pretty specific about the actions that need to be taken by the Palestinians, and we´ll stick along the lines of that." The benchmark remains Arafat´s crackdown on Hamas and Islamic Jihad after a string of suicide bombings in the spring of 1996, when action included rounding up weapons, dismantling bomb-making facilities and arresting terrorist suspects. U.S. action is more likely to take the form of diplomatic pressure. The United States has proved in the past — for example, after the Persian Gulf War 10 years ago, when it pressured Israel and the Arab states to sit down to peace talks in Madrid — that it can use a military success to effect diplomatic change. It is considered doubtful that U.S. action would mean actual military operations by U.S. forces. More likely, it would mean escalating pressure on the Palestinians to crack down on terrorist groups and not criticizing Israel´s anti-terror operations. In the first weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Israeli and Jewish leaders who had expected empathy for Israel´s plight were stunned to find America pressuring Israel to make concessions in order to defuse tensions with the Arab world. However, after the deadly attacks in Israel over the last few weeks, the Bush administration has done an about-face, pressuring Arafat and remaining silent while Israel retaliated. In a meeting with American Jewish leaders last week, Bush expressed the need for steps against anti-Israel terror groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. Of course, such demands are not new. Arafat formally swore off terror in 1993, when he began the peace process with Israel, and has pledged time and again to quash Palestinian terror. Eight years and much diplomatic energy later, it remains unclear how the United States can bring to bear the needed pressure to finally spur Arafat to act. The latest American initiative, outlined by Secretary of State Colin Powell in November shortly before the latest attacks, has been scrapped for the time being. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni returned to the United States this week, unable to prod Israel and the Palestinian Authority toward a cease-fire. Zinni was scheduled to meet with Bush mid-week to brief him on the situation in the Middle East. Powell said Monday that despite Zinni´s departure, his vision for the Middle East — of separate states for Israelis and Palestinians and an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — "still stands." But the possibility of returning to negotiations has taken a back seat to pressure on the Palestinian Authority to control terrorism. U.S. rhetoric right now is aimed at Arafat´s legitimacy, while not making direct threats on the Palestinian Authority. Still, no explicit consequences have been laid out if Arafat continues to shirk his responsibilities. "What was being held out to the Palestinians is more a denial of benefits rather than an imposition of penalties," said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee. The United States´ main tool has been rhetoric, harshly criticizing Arafat while remaining quiet about Israeli retaliation. The Bush administration also has sought diplomatic backing from the European Union and has used America´s veto power on the U.N. Security Council to stifle pro-Palestinian resolutions. These actions have the effect of delegitimizing Arafat, making him more of an outcast in the international community. To many observers, the shift in rhetoric has had its desired effect. Arafat has taken some steps to curb violence, allegedly arresting over 100 militants and closing some Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices, and is under international pressure to do more. His speech Sunday, calling for an end to terrorist attacks against Israel, fulfilled a long-standing American demand that he call for an end to violence in Arabic. However, two days later, in a speech in Ramallah, Arafat again was calling on his people to struggle against Israel, telling a crowd of Palestinians that "I am willing to sacrifice 70 martyrs to kill one Israeli," according to Israel Television. What will be needed, Ross suggested, is an ultimatum with firm deadlines and real consequences for non- compliance. These could include cutting off humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, closing their Washington offices and placing some factions of the Palestinian Authority — such as Arafat´s Fatah Party, which has claimed responsibility for a string of recent attacks — on the State Department´s terror lists. "Not every response is going to be a military response," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "The United States has a tool kit with diplomatic, economic and military means available." Many possible actions already have been approved by Congress. They have been suspended in the past by the president because of the view that sanctions stifle chances for peace. To impose sanctions, Bush would need only to not extend a suspension. But Bush does not seem to have reached that point just yet. On Monday, he chose to suspend for another six months the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something he had promised during his presidential campaign to expedite. While Palestinians would considered the embassy move a provocative gesture, not doing it is a sign that the United States is not willing to agree to all Israeli requests. In addition, the State Department on Monday offered its first criticism of Israeli actions in recent weeks, calling the detention of Palestinian official Sari Nusseibeh for trying to hold a diplomatic reception in eastern Jerusalem "provocative" and "counterproductive." The next turning point is expected to come once the United States ceases its pursuit of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida in Afghanistan. Once the first phase of the war on terror is completed, the second phase — if there is one — will be a test of America´s resolve to fight terrorism in general, even if it is unrelated to the Sept. 11 attacks. Many believe that if bin Laden is captured and the Taliban eradicated, the United States will be able to move freely against other terror organizations — and, as Bush has promised, states that sponsor terrorism. Many Jewish leaders place the Palestinian Authority in the category of governments that sponsor terror. "Success generates respect and fear," Isaacson said. "It´s a combination of respect and fear that the United States must wield in its dealings with countries that don´t necessarily share our values." After the Persian Gulf War, the United States used its international clout to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Arabs, convening the Madrid peace conference that led to the Oslo peace process. This time around, many are hoping American clout will be used to pressure the Palestinians to curb violence, and to force moderate Arab states to publicly criticize Arafat. "Success in Afghanistan can show moderate Arab states that in working with the U.S., the forces of extremism can be defeated," Isaacson said. "Moderate Arab states that have been struggling with this problem, but have wondered about the possibility of victory can be heartened that they have an ally in America."

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