US charts own Mideast course

As US Defense secretary heads to Mideast, Israelis and Palestinians skeptical about US statements.

JERUSALEM

It would have made the war on terror a lot easier if the Israelis and Palestinians could have put their own war on hold while the US sought to lock tenuous Middle Eastern allies onto the global antiterrorism team.

But the cease-fire declared last week was shattered over the past day after two young Israelis were killed and 13 were injured in a raid on a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, an attack for which the Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility. In retaliation, Israeli tanks shelled police stations belonging to the Palestinian Authority (PA) yesterday, killing six Palestinians, seizing a mile-wide strip of Palestinian territory near the settlement, and flattening farmlands.

The latest relapse into the sad spiral of violence that has consumed Israeli-Palestinian relations for the past year threatens to pull the rug out from under the Bush administration, as it tries to create firm diplomatic ground on which to pursue military attacks on the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 assaults on New York and Washington.

Israelis are disappointed that Washington has left Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another extremist group opposed to peace talks with Israel, off its list of Muslim groups with ties to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and many here bristle at the invitation of countries such as Syria to the antiterrorism table.

Palestinian statehood

Also disturbing to many here were reports Tuesday that the US has been working on a new Middle East peace initiative - thus far not coordinated with Israel - and remarks by Bush in support of Palestinian statehood. After seven months in office without a mention of Palestinian statehood, the president said that the idea of a Palestinian state "has always been a part" of the US vision for the region's future.

The remark was perceived by many in Jerusalem as a blatant attempt to woo Arab backing in advance of likely US military action in Afghanistan.

Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, said the US, in its rush to build the coalition, is suddenly pushing peace diplomacy and meetings with Arafat at a time when they cannot work.

Many Palestinians, meanwhile, are viewing that announcement with skepticism, coming on the eve of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's trip to Arab nations Washington wants in its antiterror coalition.

Washington's attempts to halt the bloodshed here are complicated by the fact that it remains unclear whether Mr. Sharon or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have the political will to maintain a cease-fire despite pressure from the more radical elements of their respective publics.

US has its own priorities

Israelis had hoped that, in the aftermath of the devastating attacks, the US would take a more sympathetic view of Israel's ongoing battle against terrorism, for which it blames not just Islamic militants, but Arafat's failure to arrest militants.

On the contrary, Israel is finding that the top US priority is assembling a broad coalition that includes countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are friendly to Washington.

"They're saying, 'keep quiet and be careful, and don't respond [to Palestinian attacks] because we are building something bigger.... But we have also public opinion here," says Ze'ev Schiff, a military analyst for the Haaretz newspaper, commenting on Israel's shelling of PA targets yesterday.

"The wind and the sounds coming from Washington are not promising," says Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin.

"We risk being at a point where America will apply the pressure and Sharon will ignore it - though he won't say no," says Mr. Liel. "Sharon knows well that he is backed by the overwhelming majority of Israelis."

"The US is telling us, we have a big problem so you just shut up with your little problem," Liel adds. "But for us, our little problem is a huge problem."

Schiff says that Israel's leadership is less concerned with Bush's expression of support for a Palestinian state than the feeling that the Bush administration may not be on the same page as Israel when it comes to zeroing in on countries that support terrorism.

"It's the worry that suddenly organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad would be out of the terror list, and suddenly Syria, which has presented an excellent example for many years of sheltering terrorism, suddenly they are in the coalition," Schiff says.

While Palestinians warily welcomed Bush's statement, they asked that the US put that desire into action by taking a firmer hand in the conflict and sending an observer force.

"What President Bush said yesterday is a very important thing, but it is so late in coming," says Kadoura Faris, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council a field leader of Fatah, Arafat's main political faction.

"We hope that what he said will be the policy of his administration, not just a declaration of opinion. And we hope the American administration will put pressure on the Israeli government to implement the Mitchell Report," which recommended confidence-building measures for both sides.

Military presence continues

The tough Israeli army measures in the Gaza Strip appeared to signal that whatever pressures arise from America's interest in perpetuating the cease-fire, Israel has not given up its freedom to strike with overwhelming force against Palestinian targets.

Mr. Rivlin predicts that out of deference to Washington, the Israeli cabinet will cease blocking further meetings between moderate Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat as a follow up to their session last week.

"We have no belief, hope or optimism when it comes to Arafat, but if the Americans would like there to be a meeting, that's OK as long as we don't give up our ability to respond," Rivlin says.

"If Arafat is ready to carry on with a show, we are ready to take part ... as long as we continue to combat terrorism."

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