WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (JTA) 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 are encouraged by administration comments this week that the coalition ultimately intends to act as well against groups that target Israel.
On Thursday, Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he empathized with the efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to fight terror, but still considers Israel’s invasion of the West Bank counterproductive.
Israel Defense Force troops have moved into six Palestinian cities and one village in the week since Palestinian terrorists assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in a Jerusalem hotel on Oct. 17. Wednesday’s raid into the Palestinian village of Beit Rima, which killed at least five Palestinians, sparked international outrage.
Israel pulled out of Beit Rima on Thursday.
Israel contends that the raids were an important counterterrorism tool, and that 42 suspected terrorists were arrested.
Israel says it made the move after Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat because it broke countless pledges to crack down on violence and terror against Israel.
Powell said Arafat had told American diplomats that “he is working on” arresting Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine militants who assassinated Ze’evi. Powell noted, however, that he was not sure the arrests would be “true arrests,” and that President Bush had expressed to Arafat that the issue “has got to have his full attention.”
Still, Powell urged Sharon to consider the long-term consequences of Israel’s actions.
“While you’re doing what you have to do in self-defense of your nation and of your ministers and of your people, we also have to keep in mind that ultimate security will come only when we can get back to a process of peace,” Powell said. “Anything that, while defending yourself, is done in such a way that it makes it that much more difficult to get back to the path, doesn’t serve your interest at the end of the day.”
After calling earlier in the week for Israel to withdraw its troops “immediately,” the Bush administration tempered its criticism Thursday.
“The president believes that Israel’s partial pullout is a positive step,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday, referring to the withdrawal from Beit Rima. “The president continues to urge Israel to lower tensions, withdraw its forces from all Palestinian-controlled areas and to exercise restraint.”
After speaking Thursday with State Department officials, visiting Israeli minister Dan Meridor said he did not sense many differences between U.S. and Israeli perceptions of the situation. U.S. officials fear that Israeli actions might weaken tenuous Arab and Muslim support for America’s war in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida terrorist network.
“We understand America is at war and we take into account such facts,” Meridor said. Yet, he added, “America understands the attack that Israel is under for over a year” since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000 “and the killing of a minister.”
On Wednesday, testifying before the House International Relations Committee, Powell repeated the State Department’s criticism of Israel’s policy of killing Palestinian terror leaders, saying it is 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.”
With tension rising between the American and Israeli governments since Israel invaded the West Bank last week, lawmakers sought to clarify U.S. policy toward Israel.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) asked rhetorically how America would react if Israel urged the United States to seek a political solution with bin Laden, believed to be behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“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.
Taking the opposing view, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said if “you have indiscriminate shelling of Palestinian villages where women and children are killed in retaliation for some sort of an attack, that has to be labeled terrorism,” just like aggressive actions against Israelis.
“We can’t have a double standard and expect that we’re going to be taken seriously in most of the world,” Rohrabacher said.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) said he was encouraged by a letter from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage pledging that organizations like the PFLP and others of Israel’s antagonists would be targeted by the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.
“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 Tuesday’s 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.
(JTA Washington Correspondent Sharon Samber contributed to this report.)