Anti-terror coalition unshaken by new Mideast flare-up

For the moment at least, the international coalition against terrorism appears strong enough to survive its first significant stress over the Middle East, U.S. officials and experts said Tuesday, even as the United States attracts Arab criticism by pointedly refraining from condemning Israel for its attacks against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Although Arab allies in the anti-terror fight roundly denounced Israel for its retaliation for the weekend's suicide attacks, they appear willing thus far to keep their disagreements with the U.S. over the Mideast separate from their desire to see Osama bin Laden and the Taliban extinguished.

"If the U.S. is still determined to achieve peace in the [Mideast] region, and the message is clear that it is a fair broker of peace, I do not believe the situation there should affect the coalition," said Hesham Elnakib, spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. "As long as the framework for peace still exists, this crisis can be dealt with."

The U.S. continued to carefully measure its words regarding Israeli missile attacks on Palestinian targets Tuesday, refraining from the kind of outright condemnations it has not hesitated to issue in the past.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Bucharest, Romania, to attend an anti-terrorism conference, said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "is responding in a way that he believes is appropriate to defend his people and to defend his country." Powell added, however, that both the Israelis and Palestinians need to consider the consequences of their actions for the battered peace process and the prospect of achieving a cessation of violence.

Some commentators in Arab media are interpreting the U.S. response as a green light to Israel to attack Arafat's Palestinian Authority. U.S. officials strongly deny this, and State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the U.S. senses no evidence of erosion of international support for either its Middle East policy or the anti-terror coalition as a result of the latest Israeli-Palestinian flare-up.

"We are fighting terrorism. We have strong support from the worldwide coalition in our efforts in that regard," Reeker said. "We think we have strong support from the international community in pursuing a process to bring peace to the Middle East. And that has to begin with ending the violence."

No uproar in Arab streets

That U.S. confidence is helped by the absence of any popular uproar from masses of protesters in the Arab "street"--over either the Afghan campaign or Israel's latest attacks against Arafat. That is making it easier for the U.S. and its Arab allies to keep the old Israeli-Palestinian issue from complicating the new anti-terror war. Many Arab states, although muted in their public support for the U.S-led campaign against bin Laden, nevertheless regard the fight as being in their own interest.

"If you look at the basis of the terror war--Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda--bin Laden has threatened Arab regimes all over the region," said a senior State Department official. "Even the `streets' and the public realize that bin Laden does not represent them, or Islam."

But the U.S. should not take that understanding for granted, warns one Mideast expert.

"I don't think the Arab public has absorbed the enormity of the situation there yet, the enormity of the Israeli retaliation," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College.

Arab governments, including Egypt, denounced Israel's retaliatory strikes against Palestinian targets Tuesday, including three missiles that struck 50 yards from Arafat's government office in Ramallah; aides rushed him to safety in an underground shelter.

Jordan issues warning

"The Cabinet warns of the consequences of targeting the Palestinian Authority and harming Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat," Jordan's minister of state, Saleh Qallab, told reporters.

"Any strike on President Arafat and the Palestinian leadership would elicit a ferocious response," Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said in Cairo.

For its part, Israel insisted it was not targeting Arafat personally but striking military and political targets to pressure Arafat to arrest leaders of militant groups such as Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the weekend's triple suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 25 people and wounded nearly 200.

Israel's strikes were "more of a warning than a punishment," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, also in Bucharest, told reporters.

Tribune news services contributed to this report.