New rules: Israel widens targets

For first time, Bush administration doesn't urge Israeli restraint in response to terrorism.

As it responds to a new deadly cycle of terrorist violence, Israel is taking its cue from the United States' action against the Taliban in Afghanistan: no distinguishing between terrorists and those who harbor them.

For Israel, that means hitting Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority just as hard as Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that took at least 26 Israeli lives in 24 hours.

The US, for its part, hasn't asked Israel to be restrained in its response to Palestinian violence - a first for the Bush administration. To be sure, the US is not going so far as to endorse the Israeli perspective that Mr. Arafat is on par with the Taliban.

But Washington's calculated move not to dissuade Israel from taking retaliatory action shows how America's own war on terrorism may be influencing its allegiances and ability to affect the Mideast peace process.

For the moment, the Bush administration is back in the hard place it occupied for months: between those who say the US can only sit back and wait for a more propitious moment to pressure for negotiations, and those who say only the US and a full diplomatic press can break the degenerating cycle of violence in the troubled region.

Clearly, the three suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa reminded official Washington of Sept. 11 - and provided a dramatic backdrop for President Bush's meeting with Israeli Prime MInister Ariel Sharon on Sunday. While the US is still insisting that dialogue with Arafat is possible, the US approach to Israel may be shifting - at least Israel is interpreting it that way.

Before the weekend attacks, Mr. Bush was prepared to pressure Sharon to soften his demand for seven days of quiet before any return to dialogue, sources say. Instead, Sharon emerged from what he called "friendly" talks feeling no pressure for restraint and fortified in his view that Israel must deal with its terrorist threat much as the US is dealing with its own threat.

"What emerged [from the meeting] was a Sharon doctrine very much paralleling the Bush doctrine on terrorism," says Raymond Tanter, a Middle East expert with close ties to the White House. "Bush says we won't differentiate between terrorists and states harboring them, and Sharon translates that thus: The Palestinian Authority in effect provides safe haven to Hamas, so Arafat has become the Taliban."

In Israel, that rationale is gaining ground. In an op-ed published Monday in the Ma'ariv daily, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote: "We must say to Arafat exactly what the Americans said to the Taliban: 'Stop the terror or you will be removed from power.' They didn't stop. They were removed."

The White House isn't going that far - at least not yet and not publicly. "Clearly, Chairman Arafat has committed himself over the course of events in recent years to a set of peaceful steps," something Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar did not do, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday. He cited Arafat's commitments as "one of the reasons" US Gen. Anthony Zinni went to the region on a truce-seeking mission and why Bush has spoken with Arafat in the past.

But some observers see a debate in the White House over what the approach to Arafat should be. The danger now, they add, is that the tension will be interpreted by Israel as a green light for action against Arafat.

"A big question that needs to be resolved: Do we think the Palestinian Authority under Arafat is helpful to us?" says Michael Hudson, an Arab studies specialist at Georgetown University. "I sense there is serious doubt in some quarters in the administration. They can't figure out if Arafat is a friend or an enemy." The danger is that "the Israelis could go after the logic of their own thinking on this and kill Arafat."

The empathy Bush feels for the Israelis as they deal with Sept. 11-style attacks doesn't erase the differences the US sees in the cases of Afghanistan and the Palestinians. Without justifying terrorists, Bush recognizes the Palestinians' right to an independent state, and Secretary of State Colin Powell in a speech on the Middle East last month referred to the violence as one effect of the Palestians' frustrations over continued Israeli dominance.

Like many other international players, the US is not convinced the alternative to Arafat would be better. "In Afghanistan, we knew the potential existed for working with the Afghan government that would replace the Taliban to achieve our antiterrorist goals," says William Quandt, who worked on the Camp David accords under President Carter. "The Israelis have no such assurance. In fact, the alternatives are quite the opposite."

As Israel began Monday hitting Palestinian Authority headquarters with missiles, the US was left contemplating what steps to take next. The White House may have already unwittingly given Hamas another reason to carry out attacks by sending a diplomatic mission to the region now, says Mr. Tanter. In addition to retaliating for Israel's killing of a Hamas leader last month, the attacks aimed at "embarrassing Arafat" and "stopping any progress Zinni was about to make," he says.

The US is riding high from its success in Afghanistan, so a chance to injure American diplomatic prestige is only icing on the cake, Tanter says. That US diplomacy can only be tarnished in the current context is the best reason the US should call General Zinni home and sit out the next period, he believes.

Others, though, say US interests are too great to let the situation degenerate further.

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