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At a Bloody Price, Terror Attacks Win Understanding for Israel’s Plight

December 5, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, Israelis and their American Jewish supporters have tried to impress upon Washington that “your war is our war.”

They’ve had little success — until this week.

The bloodiest terrorist attacks in Israel in the post-Sept. 11 world — assaults that specifically targeted teen-agers — seem finally to have produced a bounce in sympathy for Israel from both the U.S. administration and the American public.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also offered sympathy and condolences, as did the European Union Yet Washington’s response, especially, was taken as a sign of a change of heart.

For the first time after a major attack in Israel, the Bush administration refrained from using the “r” word — restraint — and implicitly gave Israel the green light to respond as it saw fit to the suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed at least 25 and wounded nearly 300.

“We’re not about to tell Mr. Sharon what he should do,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday, shortly after the Hamas attacks. He did add, however, that Israel should consider the consequences of its actions.

On Tuesday, Powell was more explicit. Sharon should remember, he said, “that there will be a tomorrow and a day after tomorrow, and we have to try to get back to a process that will lead to a ceasefire and to negotiations.”

In addition, Bush on Tuesday froze the assets of three organizations — the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, Beit el-Mar Holdings and Al-Aqsa Islamic Bank — that allegedly raise funds for Hamas.

The groups had been under investigation for a long time, but action against them apparently was precipitated by the weekend terror attacks.

Still, some observers wondered how long it would take before the green light would again turn red, and whether Israel would really be released from the constraints Washington has demanded while the United States pursues its own war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

Much hinges on who triumphs in an apparent power struggle between the hawkish Defense Department, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and the more dovish State Department, symbolized by Powell and staffed by career Arabists.

Some are suggesting that Bush declare victory in this stage of the war on terror, considering that the Taliban has collapsed and Osama bin Laden is on the run.

Wolfowitz reportedly now is pressing to advance to “Stage Two” of the struggle, which could focus on ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and ending his weapons development programs. Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Colombia also are mentioned as potential targets.

Advocates for Israel say Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad should be among the next groups targeted.

“The administration is just in fits over what to do next,” said Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. “The definition of this war on terrorism is really up for grabs.”

How Israel figures in later stages of the effort remains unclear.

As the dust settled after Sept. 11, Israel advocates initially figured America would now grasp the Israeli reality.

But that hope quickly faded as Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?” A number of U.S. pundits — and most spokesmen for Arab- and Muslim-American groups — blamed much of the anti-American animus on Washington’s allegedly unwavering support for Israel against the Palestinians.

Israel was marginalized as Washington courted the Arab world for its coalition against bin Laden and his Al Qaida terror network. Vital links in the coalition, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, went so far as to accuse the Jewish state of being a “terrorist” regime.

President Bush stressed that the U.S. campaign would target only those groups with “global reach,” disappointing many Jewish observers who hoped the dragnet would include Hamas and others.

Yet Bush’s powerful rhetoric — including a U.N. address in which he rejected attempts to condone terror in the name of national liberation — heartened many Israelis. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon often adopts Bush’s slogans to describe Israel’s own struggle against Palestinian terror.

The recent Hamas attacks caught Washington in the throes of another Mideast diplomatic offensive. Envoy Anthony Zinni arrived in the region just last week, and many observers expected that he would demand from Israel a political program that offered Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat incentives to end the intifada.

Just as Zinni was beginning his rounds of meetings, however, the Palestinian onslaught began.

“The whole subject is very uncomfortable for the administration, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “On the one hand, it would like Israel to stay off the radar screen. On the other hand, it can’t say, ‘Do what I say, not what I do.’ No country would allow suicide bombers to blow up its citizens with impunity.”

Still, there presumably are limits to what Washington will tolerate. If Sharon heeds his right wing and moves to topple Arafat, American sympathy is likely to evaporate.

“This talk of not having a partner in Arafat is counter-productive, because the administration looks at Arafat as the only one to work with,” Bronson said.

Moreover, Washington’s basic tendency toward “even-handedness” is not likely to change.

Secretary Powell may hope that the Hamas attacks and the large death toll are just an aberration, a blip that does not dramatically affect American peacemaking efforts or its war in Afghanistan, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.

His statements this week that showed greater understanding for Israel “is not a shift, but a concession,” Pipes said. “The outrage is so evident that he can’t just tell Israel to cool it, absorb it, and move on. So the secretary of state cannot apply his outlook on the world at this time.”

Regardless, Pipes said, too much is made of U.S. pressure on Israel. Both countries make decisions based primarily on their national interests, rather than pressure, he said.

After the latest attacks, though, Sharon’s pledge that Israel will deal with the Palestinian Authority as America is dealing with the Taliban — because both are regimes that harbor terrorists — may sound increasingly reasonable to others in Washington.

“They recognize more and more that this terrorism is an interlocking network, and killing Osama won’t be enough,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Terrorism must be fought in absolutes.”

To date, Israel’s role in the U.S.-led war on terror primarily has been to provide intelligence. In the future, Hoenlein said, Washington may not mind if Israel takes on the Hamas “portfolio.”

“The fact is, Israel is important to the war on terrorism, because every country that fights terrorism within its borders or outside its borders is taking a chink out of the armor of Islamic extremism,” Hoenlein said. “Just as Israel benefits from what America is doing in Afghanistan, America benefits from what Israel is doing against terrorism.”

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