Despite tensions, Israeli ties with US are close as ever

Sept. 11 put a brief kink in the two countries' relations, but US has reasserted its commitment in recent days.

The events of Sept. 11 carved a stark before-after line in Israeli politics.

Osama bin Laden's reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one reason for his jihad made Israelis worry that they would get short shrift as the US wooed Arab allies for its coalition against terrorism. These anxieties sharpened when the US criticized Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory.

But despite these tensions and US overtures to the Arab world, including those expected at this weekend's UN General Assembly meeting in New York, the US is underscoring that its ties to Israel remain as close as ever. Indeed, President Bush on Wednesday made clear that easing the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not crucial for his administration's efforts in Afghanistan.

"There is no doubt in my mind ... we will bring Al Qaeda to justice, peace or no peace in the Middle East," said Mr. Bush, referring to Mr. Bin Laden's group.

Even so, the Bush administration is expected to work hard at the UN gathering to signal to the Arab world that it is serious about bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to give a speech outlining a reworked US approach that includes a vision of Palestinian statehood.

Mr. Powell has also hinted that he may meet Mr. Arafat on the sidelines of the global powwow. More significantly, there is a possibility that Bush and Arafat could meet informally for the first time, an encounter that would please the Arab world.

"Symbolically, for this president who has treated [Arafat] as untouchable, it would be a powerful way to signal that the US knows we've got to get back into this game as honest broker," says Bill Quandt, professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.

It's not a meeting Israel wants to see, especially at a time when some Israelis are feeling a little taken for granted by the US.

In early October, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lashed out at the US attempts to build a coalition that included countries like Egypt and Syria. In a comment that had diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic cringing, Mr. Sharon implicitly equated American behavior to the appeasement of Nazi Germany - a remark the White House quickly deemed "unacceptable."

A few weeks later, after the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister, Israel rebuffed repeated US requests to pull back from the largest reoccupation of West Bank towns since the Palestinian uprising began. Shortly afterward, Sharon cancelled a trip to see Bush.

In newspapers running headlines like "American against Sharon," columnists accused the US of hypocrisy. How could the US ask Israel to restrain itself when fighting terrorism, they wrote, while the US freely fought terrorism in Afghanistan?

Another columnist, temporarily forgetting US annual aid to Israel of over $3 billion, fretted about the way the US State Department "has always fostered plans that endanger Israel's security, while ... mouthing pious platitudes about its commitment to Israel."

The Israeli worries are fed by a concern that hostile countries like Iraq could interpret US actions as a shift away from Israel and as an opportunity to attack.

But even as Israelis wring their hands, US decisions in the last week signal a tighter embrace of the Israeli view of terrorism, which could come at the cost of US relations with its friends in the Arab world.

The US has added to its list of terrorist organizations Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, anti-Israel groups that most Arabs believe are engaged in legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation.

And in remarks to a Washington audience last week, a deputy assistant secretary of state equated the Palestinian intifada with terrorism. US officials have also gone to great lengths to emphasize that doubts about the US commitment to Israel are misplaced. "We don't perceive that there is a crisis and have been working quite closely with the Israeli government almost without change in style or substance from both before and since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks," says US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.

But there is a difference in outlook that stems from the challenges of US coalition building, says Sam Lewis, a former US Ambassador to Israel. Moderate Arab allies need help bringing public opinion around to their participation in the coalition, says Mr. Lewis, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is making that difficult.

"The US views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a very undesirable side show. That's why they're pleading ... 'Clamp down. We'll get back to you, but right now we've got a bigger priority,' " Lewis says.

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