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Nuances Separate White House, State Dept. on ‘targeted Killings’

August 8, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

While the State Department condemns Israel’s targeted killings of Palestinian militants, Israel is clutching to the more lenient approach of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Israel’s advocates, meanwhile, are defending the policy by conjuring up images from World War II to show that the United States once acted in a very similar manner.

Speaking on “Fox Special Report” on Aug. 2, Cheney said he believes the policy of targeted killings could be justified, at least in Israeli eyes.

“If you’ve got an organization that has plotted or is plotting some kind of suicide bomber attack, for example, and they have evidence of who it is and where they’re located, I think there’s some justification in their trying to protect themselves by preempting,” Cheney said.

His words were in sharp contrast to the official State Department line. For weeks, the diplomatic corps has condemned Israel’s policy, saying it furthers — and even aggravates — the cycle of violence.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Cheney was trying to explain the Israeli perspective.

“What the vice president was reflecting on is how both parties see justification in the actions they take,” Fleischer said Friday. “It is the policy of the United States to oppose these killings.”

Israeli officials in Washington received Cheney’s comments warmly, saying they echoed what American officials have been saying privately.

“The tactic is working, and when we express it to the Americans, they understand it,” an Israeli official said. “We’re not asking them to endorse our strategy, but we think they understand it.”

Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, said the differences in perspective between the White House and its foreign policy arm actually are small, and reflect their different constituencies.

The State Department is speaking to the international community. The White House, however, is appealing to the American Jewish community and to Congress, which consistently has called for a tougher line against the Palestinian Authority, Smerling said.

In the past week, several lawmakers have expressed support for Israel’s policy. A leading Democrat in the House of Representatives said Friday that the United States acted similarly when it tried to assassinate terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

American politicians justified the atomic attacks by saying they brought the war to an early end, thereby saving lives.

Conservative columnist George Will also noted U.S. hypocrisy on the issue of revenge killings, referring to the American assassination of Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto in World War II. Yamamoto was considered the man most responsible for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“There’s only a cycle of violence because the state of Israel’s legitimacy is under attack,” Will said Sunday on the ABC talk show “This Week.”

Israeli officials believe their policy of targeted killings serves the United States’ interests, saying it prevents an escalation of violence by taking terrorists planning major attacks. Two Hamas officials killed in a helicopter attack last week were believed to be responsible for the attack on a Tel Aviv disco in June, as well as other suicide bombings, according to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Opinion is split, however, over whether the targeted killings reduce violence or, in fact, escalate it. Thousands of Palestinians who turned out for the funerals of the Hamas men pledged massive retaliation — though Hamas probably would have claimed other justifications for attacking Israel even without the recent helicopter attack.

Smerling said he thinks the administration’s split on the issue will be resolved shortly, but that it shows U.S. ambivalence over whether Israel’s policy reduces violence or provokes it.

“The United States is trying to say that it is understandable and justified, but it’s problematic nevertheless,” he said.

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