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Middle East: Analysts See Possible Enlargement Of Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

U.S. President George W. Bush strongly defended Israel's right to self-defense yesterday after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to attack his country's enemies "any place and in any way." Analysts express concern that Bush may be giving a green light to Sharon to launch preemptive strikes elsewhere in the Middle East.

Washington, 8 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush once again strongly supported Israel's right to defend itself following its strike on what it called a Palestinian terrorist training camp deep in Syria.

Although the attack (4-5 October) was widely condemned around the world, including by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Bush said on 6 October that Israel "must not feel constrained" about defending itself.

But yesterday, Bush stressed that Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should also avoid escalating the conflict. "The decisions [Sharon] makes to defend [the Israeli] people are valid decisions," Bush said. "We would be doing the same thing in this country. We would defend our people. But we're also mindful when we make decisions -- as the prime minister should be -- that he fully understand the consequences of any decision, and that while he defends his people that he doesn't create the conditions that would cause escalation."

Israel's strike -- its deepest attack in Syria in three decades -- came in retaliation for a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 19 people in Haifa on the previous day.

Syria said Israeli war planes hit a civilian site, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Israel of trying to drag Syria and the rest of the Middle East into a wider conflict.

Analysts tell RFE/RL that the Israeli strike has already escalated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, adding that Sharon appears intent on widening it -- with little resistance from Washington.

Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at George Washington University and a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington, told RFE/RL: "The mere fact that Israel bombed that Palestinian target in Syria is in itself an escalation, and it exports the Palestinian-Israeli conflict outside of its perimeter, takes it to Syria. And given the statements that are put out by [the Bush] administration, in which the administration does not show any displeasure at this turn of events, Mr. Sharon might also go after Lebanon."

Earlier yesterday, Sharon suggested to reporters that Israel was adopting Bush's doctrine of preemption, saying that Israel would strike its enemies anywhere and anytime in order to prevent further terrorist attacks against its people.

Bush used a similar argument to justify the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and it became a cornerstone of his administration's national security strategy last year.

Speaking at a memorial service in Jerusalem yesterday marking the anniversary of the 1973 Middle East war, Sharon said: "Israel will not be deterred from defending its citizens and will not hesitate to hit its enemies in any place and in any way. At the same time, we will not miss any opportunity to reach an agreement with our neighbors."

Washington accuses Syria of being a state sponsor of terrorism and of allowing foreign militants to cross into Iraq from Syria to wage guerrilla war against U.S. troops. Syria denies both charges.

Some analysts say Israel's strike was intended to send a message to Syria to stop supporting Palestinian terrorist groups, some of whom operate out of Syria or Syria-controlled Lebanon.

Jim Phillips of the Heritage Foundation think tank told RFE/RL: "The signal that Israel is sending to Syria is that this very well could enlarge into a war that would drag Syria into a war that it can't win. It is trying to stress to the Syrians the risks involved in its policy of supporting terrorists -- not only Palestinians against Israel, but also Hezbollah in Lebanon -- against Israel."

But Phillips acknowledged that Israel's strike has left Sharon's ally Bush in an awkward position. "I think the United States is sending a mixed message," he said. "On the one hand, the State Department is critical and calling for restraint. But on the other hand, the White House is indicating that it understands what motivates Sharon and is reiterating that Israel has a right to self-defense. So it puts the Bush administration in an awkward position, because what Israel is doing is similar to what the U.S. is doing in the wider war against terrorism."

Jouejati believes that is also one of Sharon's motives -- to show that Israel's struggle with terrorism is basically the same as America's. "The strategy is to portray Israel's war as one and the same as the U.S. war against international terrorism in order to gain American sympathy so that Israel can have a free hand in the Middle East," he said. "Well, the two cases are not the same. The war against international terrorism, the war against Al-Qaeda, is getting the cooperation of such states as Syria, which is and has been cooperating with the CIA against Al-Qaeda. It is not the same war."

Like Joujati, Phillips said the conflict between Syria and Israel could spill into Lebanon, where he said Damascus could seek to retaliate through militant groups like Hezbollah.

The Israeli army said a soldier was shot dead at the Lebanese border on 6 October. Military sources blamed his death on Hezbollah, which denied any involvement.

The Israeli military says it does not expect an escalation. However, Israeli military sources say militants in southern Lebanon fired missiles and rockets yesterday that landed near an army base and a communal farm in northern Israel. One missile apparently fired at Israel from inside Lebanon hit a house in southern Lebanon, killing a boy.

Throughout the summer, the Bush administration promoted the "road map" plan for Middle East peace, which outlined a series of reciprocal steps for Israel and the Palestinians to take to achieve peace. It was drawn up together with the European Union, the UN, and Russia. After the resumption of violence in the region, however, the road map is now widely considered to be in tatters.