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With Washington on Vacation, U.S. Reaction to Bombing is Muted

In other contexts, the deaths of five Americans overseas might have lasting political repercussions.

But last week’s terror bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem has not galvanized Congress or the White House — primarily because it’s August and much of the Washington political community is not around.

Jewish leaders said they hope the attack at an institute of higher learning, and the possible targeting of Americans studying there, would change the mind-set of both political leaders and the general American public to offer stronger support for Israel and Israeli anti-terror operations.

“My sense is that this was one of those instances that touched people,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “It had a singular impact.”

Traditionally, however, little happens in Washington in August. Lawmakers mostly have returned to their districts to campaign for re-election, and the president departs this week for a monthlong vacation in Texas.

Given such quirks of the calendar, the recent upsurge of Palestinian violence is expected to have far less impact than it would during the other 11 months of the year.

The Hebrew University attack did garner a strong rhetorical reaction from the White House. Speaking with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Aug. 1, a day after the bombing, Bush said he was “just as angry as Israel is right now” and said the United States would work to track down the Americans’ killers.

Bush also said Israel “must defend herself,” which some interpreted as a green light for a strong Israeli reprisal. That in itself could be a change in attitude for a Bush administration that late last month called an Israeli airstrike on Hamas’ military leader “heavy-handed.”

In a significant development, the White House announced that FBI officials would go to Israel to assist in the investigation, a first since the Palestinian intifada began in Sept. 2000. The FBI team arrived in Israel on Monday, according to Israeli media.

Some analysts say the FBI investigation could signal a concern within the Bush administration that Hamas and other terrorist groups are targeting Americans, which Hamas has denied. If a terrorist group is found to be specifically targeting Americans, analysts say, U.S. policy in the Middle East could change significantly.

But little else has been done here to address the Americans’ deaths — which doesn’t surprise some pro-Israel activists who accuse the United States of downplaying the murder of Americans in Israel so as not to jeopardize halting moves to revive the peace process, such as reforming the institutions of the Palestinian Authority.

The only Jewish organization actively using the attack as a platform for policy change is the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, which has been seeking broader support for a bill stepping up efforts to find those who kill American citizens in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The only change we’re really seeing in Congress and the State Department is a renewed desire to bring to justice Palestinian Arabs who have murdered American citizens,” ZOA President Morton Klein said.

The Koby Mandell Act, named after a 13-year-old boy originally from Maryland who was murdered last year in the West Bank, would create an office within the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute those responsible for killing Americans overseas.

The ZOA, which has sought additional action against killers of Americans through the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program, believes the new office is necessary to combat what it calls State Department apathy.

Mandell’s mother, Sherri, wrote in Monday’s New York Post that the State Department has been uninterested in seeking her son’s killers.

“In Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, there are no Rewards for Justice ads on billboards, matchbooks or newspapers, as is done in other countries,” Mandell wrote in a guest column. “No, instead the State Department’s notice is buried as deeply as the body of my son.”

Some American Jewish groups praise the bill but are not actively touting it, feeling that it is somewhat impractical. Few believe it will come up for a vote this year.

Other pro-Israel activists argue that if an attack of this magnitude had occurred while Congress was in session, both houses would have passed resolutions in support of Israel and pro-Israel forces would have undertaken a significant lobbying effort to expedite other pro-Israel bills.

When Congress returns in September it will mark the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, and pro-Israel activists fear public criticism if they attempt to focus on attacks in Israel.

Such factors lead some Jewish leaders to claim a double standard between the response when Americans are killed in Israel and when they die elsewhere, for fear of jeopardizing chances for Mideast peace.

“Our feeling is that there have been numerous American deaths, and holding Palestinian killers of Americans to different standards than other killers of Americans doesn’t help bring peace to region and help the United States fight terror,” said Rebecca Needler, a spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

During the recess, some headway may be made on other issues in the Israeli-Palestinian context, including a halt to humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and proposals to sanction Arab states that fund terrorist groups attacking Israel.

There is “very ample evidence” that Saudi Arabia has been financing “Hamas and other terrorist groups claiming credit for bombings such as those that have occurred this week, including those that killed five Americans,” Lieberman said on “Fox News Sunday.” “That can’t go on anymore if there’s going to be peace.”

Meanwhile, despite the recent surge in Palestinian terror, Secretary of State Colin Powell still is expected to meet with Palestinian Authority officials this week in Washington. Few details of the plans have been announced.

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