As Israel expands its anti-terror operations in the West Bank, the Bush administration is expressing support for Israel’s right to defend itself and keeping the burden on Yasser Arafat to fight terrorism.
Israel backers are encouraged by the public rhetoric, but concerns are mounting that the administration’s vision for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is too narrow.
Several senators have called on the White House to become more engaged, even to the point of sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. Some Middle East analysts also are seeking a more elaborate American game plan.
Over the past year the Bush administration has vacillated between supporting Israeli retaliatory attacks as self- defense and calling for Israeli restraint, but in recent days it has returned to the former.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer acknowledged that change Monday, saying that deadly Palestinian suicide bombings in the midst of a U.S.-led cease-fire effort have hurt the chances for peace and undermined the Palestinian Authority president’s ability to lead.
“I think Mr. Arafat could have done more three weeks ago and can do more today,” Bush said Saturday from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, hours after a suicide bomber attacked a cafe in Tel Aviv.
“I know I have been disappointed in his unwillingness to go a hundred percent toward fighting terror,” Bush said of Arafat. “That includes using security forces to help prevent suicide bombers from crossing certain lands. And that also means speaking out clearly, in his native tongue.”
As usual, the State Department has been harsher on Israel.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Monday that the administration was “gravely concerned” about the situation in Ramallah, where Israel has confined Arafat to his office.
“We deplore the killing and wounding of innocent Palestinians, and we urge Israel to use maximum restraint to avoid harm to civilians and permit access for humanitarian services,” Reeker said.
Bush’s comments since last week’s Passover massacre — when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 22 Israelis at a seder in Netanya — strike some as reminiscent of the U.S. attitude after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, when Bush spoke out strongly against terrorism and in favor of self-defense and domestic security.
But the White House also warned the Israeli government that it must “make sure that there is a path to peace” when it calculates its military moves.
“The president also believes at the end of the day, Israel has got to be cognizant of the fact that a path to peace still has to be the focus of everybody’s efforts in the Middle East, and that as Israel conducts whatever Israel is going to do as a sovereign nation, the ultimate goal must still be creating circumstances for peace to take hold in the region,” Fleischer said Monday.
He added that the United States had not approved the Israeli invasion last Friday, and had not given Israel a green light for its military action.
Israel backers say the overall American response to Israel’s Operation Protective Wall has been encouraging.
“The administration is fed up with Arafat,” an official with one Jewish organization said. “Without an idea of what they are going to do, the White House is allowing Israel to continue on the trajectory and see what happens.”
Still, the White House pass does not amount to carte blanche. The Bush administration has set some constraints, forbidding Israel from exiling or harming Arafat.
Israel also promised Bush that it would not destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority or reoccupy Palestinian cities.
“We have explained that the operation in Ramallah is an operation of a limited time scope,” the Israeli official said. “We will be out of there when the operation is finished.”
An Israeli official said Bush is giving Israel latitude for now because of its moves in recent weeks to cooperate with U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni.
Specifically, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dropped his calls for seven days of quiet before starting cease-fire negotiations, pulled back Israeli troops in the West Bank and ended operations against Palestinian terrorists.
Those actions proved Israel’s willingness to find a peaceful solution. When the Palestinian Authority refused to join a cease-fire call or take steps against terrorism, they were exposed as the aggressors, analysts say.
Speaking to American Jewish leaders in a conference call Monday, Sharon said his unity government had decided to launch its offensive after its unilateral cease-fire was met with a wave of Palestinian terrorism.
“It is a battle for our homes, values and way of life,” Sharon said. “This campaign will be carried on until we triumph.”
With the Israeli invasion likely to continue for some time, advocates for Israel acknowledge that American support will probably diminish as time passes.
“It is most important that we not allow there to be any weakening of the resoluteness, so Israel has a chance to work,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Concerns linger that Arab pressure — both in the United Nations and as the United States tries to build support for a possible attack on Iraq — could change U.S. rhetoric.
Already, the United States voted late last week to approve a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an immediate Israeli withdrawal.
U.S. officials tried to distance themselves from that part of the resolution, saying they signed on only after eliminating more offensive language.
Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said she believed any change in Bush administration rhetoric would come about because of U.S. frustration, rather than a serious breach in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Yet Bryen and others believe that Bush administration policy — which is to seek an immediate cease fire and a path toward implementation of the Tenet and Mitchell plans — is doomed to fail unless it also addresses the underlying problems of the conflict.
For Bryen, that means Arab rejection of Israel.
For Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States and Israel must give the Palestinians an alternative to violence by offering a vision of what a final peace agreement would look like.
“U.S. policy, with its narrow focus of achieving a cease-fire, could not be more inept,” Siegman said. “There will not be an end to the violence unless there is a clear political context within which a cease-fire takes place.”
While U.S. support for Israel is staunch, it might be misguided, Siegman said.
“It is not an act of friendship for the U.S. to demonstrate indifference to policies that have been shown not only not to work, but to make the situation worse,” he said.