For Israel, a new risk of isolation

Party pressure led Sharon to block yesterday's US-backed cease-fire talks.

After initially anticipating that the terrorist atrocities in the United States would work to its advantage, Israel is now realizing that it faces new risks from Washington's efforts to forge an international coalition against terrorism.

A decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to block a meeting planned for last night between his reputedly dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has reinforced the new sense that there is a divergence of interests between Mr. Sharon and the US, which had backed the session. The talks had been aimed at consolidating cease-fire efforts that began last week.

For Israel, the implications of the push by its American ally go far and wide: They range from a possible boost in the standing of longtime Israeli enemies Iran and Syria, to new pressure on the military and diplomatic confrontation with the Palestinians.

"If the US wants to bring in Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians, then they are bringing in a lot of terrorists who, for their own convenience, just want to ride the wave," says Ephraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "I think that it's a misguided policy to appease terrorists, but this is what we may see."

Immediately after the attacks in the US, Israeli leaders predicted they would have more leeway to pursue devastating military actions in the occupied West Bank in the name of combatting terrorism. "It's a fact that in one night we killed 14 of them in Jenin, Tamoun, and Arabe, and no one in the world is talking about it," Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in the Sept. 14 issue of Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper.

But things have since become more complicated. It now seems that the US and Israel do not necessarily see eye to eye on how to define a terrorist or agree on who the enemy is in the new battle.

While Sharon has tried repeatedly to lump Palestinian leader Mr. Arafat in the same category as Osama bin Laden, the US sees a vital role for Arafat in de-escalating the Middle East conflict. Such a cooling off is viewed as crucial in order to diffuse regional resentment against America and its pro-Israel policies.

Secretary of State Colin Powell had mounted pressure on Sharon to endorse the meeting between Arafat and Peres. He had also implored Arafat to adhere to the cease-fire. But after being pressured by extremists in his cabinet, Sharon reportedly told his ministers that the meeting planned for last night would not proceed because of Palestinian shooting incidents.

If Arafat is seen by Washington as keeping his end of the cease-fire, there will be little American tolerance for Israeli military forays, analysts predict.

"Israel's role now is to share any intelligence discreetly and not to call attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict by having big [military] operations in the midst of all this," says William Quandt, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former National Security Council staffer. "As far as the US is concerned, this is no longer a border dispute, and anyone playing the game has to realize the high stakes involved."

Ben-Eliezer, who backed the Peres-Arafat meeting, said over the weekend: "This is now a different world entirely, and the relative value of Arab countries to the Americans has only increased since Sept. 11."

Israel is not being accorded a public military role in the coalition efforts, due to concern that this would drive away Arab and Muslim allies. But Israeli officials stress their country can make an important behind-the-scenes contribution, especially through intelligence cooperation.

"There is the declaratory level [to the coalition], but Israel can contribute on the operational level," says Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon. "The gift wrapping doesn't matter. Israel's relations with the US are far deeper than those of other countries. They existed before, and they will exist after the terrorist threat is addressed."

But some are not as confident about the period ahead. Their concern was heightened after Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, announced Friday he would be traveling to Tehran, a visit in which he will likely explore what role Iran could play in the US-led efforts.

Iran has tested ballistic missiles that can reach Tel Aviv, and is believed to be enlarging their range, while working on acquiring a nuclear capability. It is also the main backer of the fundamentalist Hizbullah party in Lebanon, whose fighters have kept up pressure on Israeli targets with attacks along the border. And it remains ideologically opposed to Israel's very existence.

"This readiness to cooperate with the Iranians is exceedingly frustrating and odd," says Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from Sharon's Likud party. "If Iran were to change course and put an end to its attempts to develop nuclear weapons, would open itself to democracy, and cease to support terrorism that would be one thing. But that does not seem to be the case here."

Inbar, the Bar-Ilan University scholar, adds: "Unfortunately, we are now seeing a deviation from the focus on weapons of mass destruction to a focus on terrorism, which is less significant. I can understand the American rage from the terrorism they experienced. But we are all going to be in big trouble if the Iranians and Iraqis have weapons of mass destruction."

Ofer Shelah, an analyst for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, wrote, however, that renewed ties between Iran and Western countries would not necessarily harm Israel. The reason: They could afford the West a degree of influence on Iran's policies. "This new world order, that is only 10 days old, is fraught with dangers as well as opportunities," Shelah wrote on Friday. "It is simply too early for anyone to be able to assess them with clarity."

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