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Tensions Between U.S. and Israel Adding Urgency to Ministers’ Visits

October 24, 2001
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A long-planned parade of Israeli officials to the U.S. capital this week has taken on a sense of urgency in light of the recent assassination of an Israeli Cabinet member and Israeli incursions into the West Bank.

The meetings have been scheduled for weeks, but this week’s call from President Bush and other top officials that Israel withdraw from Palestinian-controlled territory has raised the level of tension between the allies.

There is a growing feeling that the United States either does not understand Israel’s domestic terrorist threat — or that it is ignoring it to garner Arab support for the coalition against terrorism that Bush is orchestrating to combat Osama bin Laden and the forces behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Given the current tensions, the American Jewish community is stepping up its lobbying efforts to make Israel’s case.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said after meeting with Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday that the president had reiterated the administration’s position that Israel should withdraw its troops from Palestinian-ruled cities in the West Bank.

The foreign minister said Bush had suggested that the continuing violence in the region made it harder for him to maintain the coalition against terror.

“The United States feels that in order to organize the proper coalition, they need tranquility in the Middle East as much as we can, to reduce fire, to reduce the flames. And we understand it. The problem is how to do it,” Peres said at the National Press Club on Monday.

The Bush administration says it understands Israel’s plight, but the empathy only goes so far.

“Our argument is that you are going beyond the immediate need,” a State Department official said, referring to Israel’s decision this week to launch its biggest military operation in areas under Palestinian control since the Oslo peace process was set in motion in 1993. “It’s a question of degree.”

Jewish and Israeli officials say that behind closed doors, State Department officials express an understanding for what Israel has to do to control violence in the region.

Israel says it will stay stationed around six Palestinian-controlled cities in the West Bank until it is satisfied President Authority President Yasser Arafat is sufficiently cracking down on terrorists.

Dan Meridor, a minister without portfolio in the Israeli government, speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Tuesday, said that Israel should never be put in a situation where it is not allowed to protect its own citizens.

“Israel has to take action sometimes,” he said, adding, “I think America does understand it.”

At the same time, administration officials are telling Israeli and Jewish leaders of their need to publicly condemn Israeli actions to please the Arab world.

After his meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday, Peres said the secretary’s private comments were not as sharp as the public rhetoric.

“The secretary gave me a full explanation of the American policy and intentions,” Peres said. “I didn’t discover any contradiction in the American policy and the Israeli policy.”

Peres has said the Israelis intend to withdraw; it’s just a matter of timing.

And in an effort to counterbalance the U.S. condemnation of Israel, White House officials are leaking details of a letter sent Monday to Arafat.

“It’s a very strong message, a personal message,” said Sean McCormack, an NSC spokesman. “Our position is that the Palestinian Authority must act decisively.”

The focus of Peres’ Washington meetings — as well as those of Sharon foreign policy adviser, Zalman Shoval, and Meridor — has changed dramatically from the original goal.

Israel had wanted to seek clarification on Israel’s role — or lack thereof — in the coalition against terror and find American empathy for Israel’s own battle against terrorism.

But reports that the Bush administration was planning a new initiative to end the violence in the region led to a new agenda. Sharon’s unity government wanted more information and more influence on the U.S. plan.

Last week’s assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, and the Israeli incursions that followed, turned the agenda on its head once again.

In light of recent events, the new U.S. initiative appears to have been shelved.

Now, the Israeli government is using the ministers to explain its rationale for its military actions at a time when the United States is pushing Israel toward negotiations.

But with so many Israeli diplomats coming at the same time, vying for the attention of the Bush administration when the White House’s focus is on its war in Afghanistan, concern is growing that Israel’s public relations campaign may backfire.

Sources say that the dovish Peres and the hawkish Shoval are giving wildly different interpretations of Israel’s climate and the situation it faces — even though Peres’ public comments attacking Palestinian actions have been more forceful in recent days.

There is fear that the influx of Israelis will only serve to confuse, and possibly anger, administration officials.

“The administration is getting at least three different ministers with three different points of view,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The net effect is confusion.”

For their part, American Jewish groups publicly criticized the administration’s position on Israel’s military activity this week.

The statements came after a month of more cautious activity aimed at expressing concern about Israel’s exclusion from the war on terrorism while not undercutting the U.S. policy.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Conference of Presidents said the Bush administration, in asking Israel to withdraw immediately from all Palestinian-controlled areas, was asking Israel to “become a victim of terror.”

The administration’s statement was “inappropriate, intemperate and defies logic in the face of current U.S. efforts in the war against terrorism,” the group said.

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