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Ze’evi Assassination May Force U.S. to Back off on Plans for Peace Push

October 18, 2001
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The assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, may create additional pressure on the Bush administration to understand Israel’s plight.

“This has to throw into sharper relief the disconnect between the State Department’s criticism of Israel’s defensive actions against terrorists and the reality of the terrorist threat Israel faces on a daily basis,” said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

As recently as Monday, the State Department had reiterated its opposition to “targeted killings,” the Israeli policy of taking out Palestinian militants responsible for attacks on Israel or believed to be planning additional attacks.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a PLO faction, took responsibility for shooting Ze’evi Wednesday morning in the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem. Israel assassinated the PFLP’s leader, Mustafa Zibri, in August following a string of PFLP terror attacks.

Some U.S. Jewish leaders hoped Ze’evi’s murder would force the Bush administration to acknowledge the constant threat of violence Israelis face, and the need for tactics like targeted killings.

“For our government to not recognize the awesome threat Israel faces and the obligation of Israel to respond to threats would not be the response of a government that is sympathetic with the people of Israel and the government of Israel,” Isaacson said.

Jewish leaders have been concerned that the Bush administration will pressure the Israeli government to resume peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — despite continuing Palestinian violence — in order to bolster Arab and Muslim support for the U.S.-led coalition against terror. The Bush administration is said to have prepared a new Mideast peace plan toward that goal.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Ze’evi’s death magnifies those concerns.

“It does give urgency to the issue,” Hoenlein said. “It validates the view that you can’t put the peace process together artificially without acts on the ground.”

President Bush, for his part, condemned the assassination “in the strongest terms,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “This despicable act is further evidence of the need to fight terrorism.”

Concern also is rising about the role Syria will play in Bush’s anti-terror coalition and whether Syria, which harbors PFLP leaders, will be pressured to crack down on the organization.

Even those who favor peace talks believe Wednesday’s assassination will ice the Bush administration’s push to renew negotiations.

“It’s certainly likely to dampen recent hopes for diplomatic movement,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum. “It may ignite more cycles of violence.”

However, European leaders said the killing made it more urgent to press forward with peace talks.

“I urge restraint on all sides in response to the men of violence who only want to wreck any proposals for peace,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said. “I called on Monday for courage and leadership for a new start. Never was that more needed than now.”

The Palestinian Authority condemned the killing, and Arafat said he had ordered the killers’ arrest.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon froze all diplomatic contact with the Palestinian Authority, called off plans to ease restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank and reimposed the Israeli cordon around Ramallah. Some speculated that the easing of restrictions on Ramallah had allowed the killers to travel the few kilometers from there to the Hyatt on Mount Scopus in eastern Jerusalem, where the shooting took place.

“The full responsibility falls squarely on Arafat, as someone who has controlled, and continues to control, terrorism, and as one who has not — to this day — taken even one serious step to prevent terrorism,” Sharon told a special Knesset session in Ze’evi’s memory. Arafat “knew that not taking steps against organizations such as Islamic Jihad would lead to terrible acts of murder and the responsibility is fully his.”

The Zionist Organization of America is sending a letter to President Bush, asking him to press Arafat to kick the PFLP out of the Palestinian Authority, shut down the organization’s training camps and help bring the assassins to justice.

ZOA National Director Morton Klein said it is wrong for the United States to be chastising Israel for taking measures against domestic terrorism at a time when the United States is launching massive military retaliation against Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaida network for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“America is involved in a grotesque hypocrisy when they are targeting bin Laden and killers of Americans while demanding that Israel not target killers of Israelis,” Klein said.

The far-left Israeli group Gush Shalom, however, said Ze’evi’s death shows the bankruptcy of Israel’s own policy of targeting Palestinian militants, and highlights the need for peace talks.

Likewise, Knesset member Issam Makhoul of Hadash, Israel’s Communist Party, sought to equate the assassination of Ze’evi to Israel’s policy of targeted killings.

“I have warned that assassinations are assassinations whoever carries them out,” Makhoul said. “Whoever uses this measure creates the basis for political murders and makes them part of the rules of the game.”

Some of Ze’evi’s opponents, however, lauded him.

“You were an opponent who was a friend and a friend who was an opponent,” said Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, whose dovish positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could hardly have been more distant from Ze’evi’s.

The Palestinian Authority “cannot be silent when confronted with the spilled blood of” Ze’evi, Sarid said, “and it must carry out particularly sharp measures to suppress the murderers. No more dodging and no more avoiding. This test of the Palestinian Authority and Arafat is immediate and there is no possibility to postpone it. If they fail the test the land will burn with a fire that no one will be able to extinguish.”

Yet Israel, too, “faces a particularly difficult test,” Sarid said, recalling the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to London, Shmuel Argov, in 1982, which sparked Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to eradicate Palestinian terror groups. Israel ended up occupying southern Lebanon for 18 years, losing hundreds of soldiers.

“We recall the hasty beginning but not the bitter end” of that episode, Sarid said. “It is necessary to remember everything, the entire lesson.”

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