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Jews Welcome a Shift in Tone As U.S. Criticizes Palestinians

November 7, 2001
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For the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, the Bush administration is publicly criticizing the Palestinians and taking tangible steps toward fighting terrorism aimed at Israelis.

The change in tone, after weeks of pointed criticism directed at Israel, is being welcomed by many in the American Jewish community who were becoming increasingly frustrated by the administration’s actions.

Some see the shift as the first sign of a more balanced perspective as the administration intensifies its war on terrorism — even as it tries to keep Arab nations on board.

A key test of the administration’s positions will take place next week when world leaders gather for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

Speculation is rife about a possible meeting between President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat even as Arafat has reportedly threatened to declare unilateral statehood.

The administration says no Bush-Arafat meeting is currently being planned.

For the two months since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the administration had remained largely mute about Palestinian violence as it worked to assemble and maintain an international coalition against terrorism that included Arab nations.

At the same time, the U.S. government publicly condemned Israel for its policy of targeted assassination of terrorists and its incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas because it did not believe the Palestinians were doing enough to crack down on terrorists.

The contrast angered many American Jews and Israelis, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who at one point accused the administration of appeasing the Arabs at the expense of Israel.

But that changed over the past week, with a series of public comments aimed at the Palestinian Authority and Arafat.

David Satterfield, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, told the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, that the last year of Palestinian violence has “‘become an ongoing process of calculated terror and escalation,” which has led to Israeli actions that “proved inflammatory and provocative.”

“There has been too little movement on critical issues involving basic questions of intent and will to bring the killing to stop,” Satterfield said.

On Monday, Daniel Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told the Foreign Press Association in Tel Aviv that “words are not enough” for Arafat to prove that he is against terrorism.

Kurtzer also said the Palestinian leader must do more to crack down on Palestinian militants and decide “where he stands on questions relating to terrorism.”

At the same time, the Bush administration has taken steps to isolate Palestinian terrorist groups.

Last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft named several groups believed linked to Arafat’s Fatah faction as possible terrorist organizations worthy of monitoring.

And the State Department last Friday took steps to freeze the assets of Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups already on the department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list.

The new designation subjects these groups to the executive order President Bush declared on the Al Qaida network shortly after the September attacks.

The new focus on the Palestinian Authority has satisfied the American Jewish community, whose leaders had become increasingly frustrated with U.S. pronouncements on Israel.

“It’s an indication that the administration is getting tougher on Arafat,” said an official with a leading American Jewish organization. “Arafat only performs when he is pressured.”

Jewish leaders met last week with Ashcroft and more than 20 Republican senators. They said they felt an unprecedented alliance between the lawmakers and the Jewish community, and believe their message helped shape the change in commentary by the Bush administration.

“I don t think what we brought so much was pressure as much as information,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Plus, it was a question of timing.”

Jewish leaders had been optimistic for weeks that the courting of Arab states was temporary, and that the coalition against terrorism would eventually target Palestinian groups.

While they spent the first weeks after Sept. 11 concerned about offending the administration as it began its war efforts, the Jewish lobbying intensified after the administration’s sharp criticism of Israeli moves into the Palestinian areas.

Lawmakers peppered U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell with questions about what they termed the hypocrisy between America’s mission in Afghanistan and the Israeli policy of targeted killing.

Jewish activists also sought stricter controls on Palestinian terrorist groups, warning administration officials that the terrorist network was interconnected and should not exclude those that target Israel.

“I don’t think that this is a sea change, as much as a coming to terms with reality,” Hoenlein said of the administration’s seeming shift.

“You can’t conduct this war without combating Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he believes the administration is reacting to a feeling of being “stung” by criticism of its views on targeted killing, and are working to balance out their views.

For its part, the administration says it has not shifted course.

A State Department official said the Bush administration would continue to press Israel to leave portions of the West Bank it occupied in recent weeks.

“It doesn’t reflect a fundamental change,” the official said. “Both sides need to be doing things to move the process forward.”

For his part, Sharon canceled meetings in Washington with Bush and other government leaders next week, citing security concerns at home.

Administration officials hinted to Sharon that if he came to Washington, the administration would be forced to rebuke the policies of incursions.

As for a meeting with Arafat, State Department officials said this week that no meeting is being planned and privately, sources said such a meeting is unlikely.

Arab leaders are pushing for such a meeting, while many pro-Israel activists and lawmakers staunchly oppose it, saying that granting the meeting would reward Arafat at a time when he is not doing enough to crack down on terrorism.

Bush has told Jewish leaders in the past that he understands that meeting with Arafat is the “trump card” he holds over the Palestinian leader.

At the same time, administration officials say Powell will not expand on the U.S. position regarding a Palestinian state when he addresses the United Nations next week.

The administration also is making clear that it opposes any action by the Palestinians to unilaterally declare a state, as some media reports have suggested Arafat might do next week.

“Our policy on unilateral declarations have been clearly stated,” a State Department spokesman said Tuesday. “It would constitute a unilateral move, and we are against unilateral actions.”

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