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Israel: Fighting Complicating U.S. War On Terror

By Jeffrey Donovan/Andrew F. Tully

The escalating violence in Israel is now becoming an issue in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. Yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified at a hearing of the U.S. Congress to discuss the diplomatic front of the war being waged in Afghanistan. But many questions focused on the Middle East.

Washington, 25 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the increased fighting between Israel and the Palestinians is complicating the task of the international coalition combating terrorism. But he stresses that he believes it will not jeopardize the coalition, either.

Powell's assessment came yesterday during a congressional hearing that was supposed to have been devoted to recent diplomatic developments in the American-led campaign against Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Taliban militia that hosts the terrorist network.

Many of the questions at the hearing of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee focused on the State Department's repeated calls on the government of Israel to show restraint in its reaction to the Palestinian unrest.

The fighting has intensified over the past week after the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister by suspected Palestinian gunmen. In response, Israeli armed forces have occupied several Palestinian towns, sparking fierce street battles.

This escalation comes at an awkward time. The U.S. is trying to maintain the support of its coalition members in the war against terrorism -- including Muslim nations that are critical of Israel.

Ten years ago, during the U.S.-led war against Iraq, Israel was careful to remain on the sidelines, even after repeated Iraqi missile attacks, so as not to disturb the delicate balance of that coalition, which also included Muslim countries.

Now, Powell is urging the Israeli government to be equally restrained. Yesterday he issued a balanced appeal to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority's chairman, Yasser Arafat. "I think it's important for Chairman Arafat to do everything within his power to make the arrest of those who are responsible and to get the violence down to zero, preferably, but to the lowest level possible. And I think at this time it would be appropriate for the Israeli government to immediately withdraw from the area -- the villages they have occupied and let's try not to let this cycle of violence become even more intense than it has been in recent days."

But Israel notes that the U.S. took military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to surrender bin Laden. Israel says it reserves the right to take the same actions against terrorists. And at yesterday's hearing in Washington, several committee members echoed that view. One was Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California).

"I think it is the ultimate of hypocrisy to have State Department spokesmen criticize our democratic allies for actions we ourselves engage in."

Powell replied that Lantos had raised a difficult question. But later he said there is an important distinction between the Israeli and U.S. positions.

"Israel responds in self-defense. But at the same time it's against individuals and an organization with which you're also trying to get a process started makes it a little bit different than what we are doing with respect to that Taliban and Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan."

But Powell said he does not believe the fighting in Israel jeopardizes the coalition. He noted that many nations gladly joined in the war on terrorism, and that two weeks ago, the Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned the 11 September terror attacks against New York and Washington that killed more than 5,000 people.

"Recently, the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- 56 Islamic nations -- coming together just two weeks ago. We worried about it. Would they come out with something [a statement] that might be troublesome for us? Instead they came out with a strong, powerful statement that said what Osama bin Laden and his associates did on the 11th of September was wrong, was representative of no faith, was not representative of the faith of Islam, and was a desecration."

But Powell conceded that the escalated fighting between Israel and the Palestinians can complicate the war on terrorism.

"The actions that Israel has to take to defend itself have so far in recent weeks not undermined the coalition. But to the extent that the whole Middle East continues to bubble as a result principally of actions coming from the other side -- Palestinian actions which then generate Israeli responses -- has been not helpful to the coalition, has been part of the background noise that we've had to deal with."

Walter Russell Mead is an analyst of international affairs with the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York policy institute. He says the most important Muslim members of the coalition, as well as its European members, will not be deterred by the unrest in Israel.

"The key elements of this coalition are very much held together by a perception that Osama bin Laden and the people around him are a clear and present danger to the national security of not only the United States, but of Saudi Arabia, of Egypt, of a number of other countries in the region and, for that matter, in the EU [European Union]."

But the Israeli-Palestinian fighting is the worst in recent memory, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists he will not back down from vigorous self-defense. And if the violence escalates further, the patience of some coalition members might wear thin.