U.S. campaign causes jitters

Religious ConflictsUnrest, Conflicts and WarCivil UnrestNational SecurityTerrorismIsraelDefense

In some Israelis' eyes, it looks like an anti-terror campaign extending invitations to terrorists.

Initially enthusiastic that the Americans were stepping up their fight against terrorism, the Israelis now are worried that the U.S.-led campaign against alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden is heading in a dangerous direction by courting and coddling nations and groups they allege are supporters of terrorism.

Some Israelis noted with concern that President Bush did not once mention Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict during his speech outlining the U.S.-led global war against terrorism last week. And many Israelis are outraged by British Foreign Minister Jack Straw's visit to Tehran this week to explore cooperating with Iran, an Islamic nation that openly calls for Israel's destruction and supports anti-Israel militants.

The Israelis also are upset that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions were left off Bush's list of targeted terrorist groups, and many Israelis are not pleased with U.S. pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to ease up on the Palestinians in their year-old uprising.

Sharon canceled a dinner with Straw planned for Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, voicing anger at what he considered anti-Israel remarks by Straw in Tehran. The two ultimately shook hands in an awkward meeting, but only after a plea by British Prime Minister Tony Blair asking Sharon to receive Straw.

Israeli officials also said Tuesday that Israel may feel less obliged to restrain itself if attacked during the U.S. campaign, citing different circumstances from when it refrained from responding to Iraqi Scud missile strikes during the Persian Gulf war a decade ago.

While insisting they intend to cooperate fully and would never jeopardize their close relations with the U.S., the Israelis warned that the American-led campaign could unintentionally encourage terrorism if it did not carefully screen out nations that refuse to stop supporting terrorism, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria.

"We may all pay the price later if we don't look at this in a comprehensive and resolute way now," said Danny Ayalon, Sharon's chief foreign policy adviser. "The only ones who should be paying a price are the terrorists."

Sharon OKs talks with Arafat

Under intense U.S. pressure, Sharon gave the go-ahead Tuesday for a much-anticipated but much-delayed meeting between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday morning at Gaza International Airport.

The Bush administration has doggedly pushed for the meeting, hoping it will help calm the Mideast crisis and encourage Arab and Muslim nations to join the anti-terror coalition. But Sharon had canceled the meeting three times, saying he first wanted 48 hours without any Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

In Washington, U.S. officials said they were pleased the Arafat-Peres meeting was set to go ahead. "It does contribute, I think, toward solidifying the coalition and to making the point that ... this fight against terrorism is not a fight against the Muslim world," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Clearing the way for the Arafat-Peres meeting was the abrupt cancellation Tuesday of a trip to Syria that Arafat planned to improve ties with President Bashar Assad. Palestinians and the Syrians blamed each other for the cancellation.

There has been a dramatic decrease in violence since Arafat and Sharon announced cease-fire measures last week. But Sharon feared that allowing the meeting would give Arafat entree into the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition without halting what Israel considers his support for terrorist attacks.

Sharon has consistently compared Arafat to bin Laden, the exiled Saudi financier and chief suspect in the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Israeli leader argues that there is no difference between the terrorist attacks on the U.S. and Palestinian suicide bombings that kill Israeli civilians. 0

Diplomats cite differences

But some Western diplomats and Arab leaders have drawn a distinction between the bin Laden-linked attacks and the violence against Israel, arguing that the latter is part of the Palestinians' struggle to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

In Tehran, Straw hit a nerve with Israelis when he said that anger over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "helps breed terrorism." And the Israelis also objected when the British foreign minister called the region "Palestine."

Straw's remarks followed Israeli ire over the Bush administration's release of a list of 27 terrorist groups and individuals Monday that did not include Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, three groups that have killed many Israelis in terrorist attacks.

Mark Heller, a political analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, questioned why the anti-Israel groups were left off the list when it included Abu Sayyaf, a radical Muslim secessionist movement in the Philippines.

Immediately after the attacks in New York and the Washington area, Heller said, the Israelis believed the U.S. and others would have more empathy and support for Israel and its battle with terrorism. But many Israelis are disappointed, he said.

"Things are developing in a completely different direction than we thought," Heller said. "There is fairly widespread concern, especially on the [Israeli] right, that not only is Israel being asked to sit by and behave properly, but we are requested to make concessions [to the Palestinians] while the West puts together a coalition to fight terror that includes the terrorists."

Ayalon and others questioned how the West could extend an invitation to Iran, one of Israel's arch-foes and the spiritual and financial patron of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

`A stab in Israel's back'

Efraim Sneh, a former Israeli army general who is now a Cabinet minister from Peres' moderate Labor Party, said Straw's visit to Tehran and his remarks were like "a stab in Israel's back."

"Mr. Straw's visit indicates a tendency to take the No. 1 sponsor of world terrorism, the theocratic regime in Tehran, and turn it into a partner," Sneh said. "It means in certain circumstances, one can acquire a license from the coalition to continue with terror."

Despite pleas for calm, Israeli civilians have in recent days flooded into government centers to pick up gas masks or refurbish old ones left over from the gulf war.

Israelis fear the Jewish state will be the target of a counterstrike if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan. But Israeli officials said they see this crisis differently than when Israel complied with a U.S. request for restraint in 1991 in order not to anger Arab nations and undermine the American-led coalition in the Persian Gulf war.

Under then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Israel did not respond when Iraq fired Scud missiles into Tel Aviv. But, with Israelis cowering in sealed rooms with gas masks as Palestinians celebrated in the streets, the decision was not popular.

This time, the Israelis say, the targeted enemy is not a specific Arab nation, and the U.S. likely will not need Arab troops or other on-the-ground logistical support. So retaliation for an attack has less chance of disrupting the coalition, some Israeli officials said.

"It's pretty much a virtual coalition, which in the final analysis will not be significant," said Moshe Arens, Israel's defense minister during the gulf war, who argued then in favor of flying Israeli troops into western Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein's Scud launchers. "I don't see any great damage done in Israel defending itself."

Gerald Steinberg, a defense analyst at Bar-Ilan University, said many Israelis look back and regret setting aside their longtime policy of reprisals to maintain the country's deterrent capacity.

He said that at the time the U.S. promised the Iraqi threat would be eliminated, which it was not. And the war led to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which led to the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which Israel's right wing blames for today's bloody Palestinian intifada.

"Nobody wants to repeat the mistake, in which Israel became the punching bag for Arab inclusion" in the coalition, Steinberg said. "Today, it would be a difficult debate, but you would have many more voices calling for a response."

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