Will pro-Israel stance hinder war on terror?

US 'solidarity' with a stricken Israel sends ripples of bitterness across Arab world.

Is Osama bin Laden rubbing his hands with satisfaction as he watches the United States rattle the goodwill it recently established with the Arab world?

Even as bombs fell on Afghanistan, the US received high marks for the care it took to demonstrate that this was not a war against Islam. And the Arab "street" has remained quiet, for the most part.

But that accomplishment is at risk of being undermined by the US response to this week's ratcheting up of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Already, the lack of the usual US call for restraint is being interpreted - by both Israelis and many Arabs - as a "green light" for Israel to go further toward weakening, or even removing, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

That interpretation is conjuring up the old stereotype of a hypocritical US that condemns Palestinian violence while failing to pressure Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. That, in turn, is reviving mistrust and bitterness toward the US that could damage America's relations with the region - affecting, for example, prospects for success in the broader war on terrorism.

"If we appear complicit with the Israelis in the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the expulsion - or worse - of Arafat, that helps Osama," says Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs under President Reagan.

In the latest instance of tit-for-tat violence that has marked the conflict, Israel sent missiles less than a football field away from the office where Arafat was working Tuesday, in retaliation for the weekend's Palestinian suicide bombings. US officials say Israel is acting in self-defense.

Cutting funds

The US also moved Tuesday to close down the largest Muslim charity in the country, the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation. Foundation members say their "crime" is supporting Palestinian causes. But federal officials say the organization funnels money to Hamas, the rival to Arafat's Palestinian Authority that claimed responsibility for the weekend attacks. In targeting the charity, the US said it was expressing "solidarity" with Israel.

The appearance of the US siding ever more closely with Israel is already registering in Arab public opinion. "How can a superpower ... give the green light to an occupying state to practice assassinations, demolish houses, and kill children?" wrote Bahrain's Akbar al-Arab daily.

Arab governments friendly to the US are generally keeping their criticism limited to Israel and calling on both parties in the conflict to end the cycle of violence.

But the theme of American hypocrisy is being seized in less-friendly quarters in the region. In Tehran, where Iranian officials were hosting a visit from Spain's Foreign Minister Josep Pique, parliamentary Speaker Mehdi Karubi said Israel's declaration of war on the Palestinian Authority would only encourage "the growing radicalization of opinion in the Middle East." In a reference to the US, he added, "If you truly want to battle against terror, we must contain the Israeli government and establish a just peace in Palestine."

Arab officials and Middle East specialists say governments in the region see America's war on terrorism in Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as two separate issues. But they emphasize that the Palestinians and their struggle for independence are firmly embedded in Arab consciousness - and serve as a kind of barometer of the state of international justice - while Afghanistan's Taliban never generated much Arab sympathy.

Recognizing this opportunity, bin Laden has seized upon the Palestinian issue. "Like the good businessman he is, bin Laden knows how to sell his product by associating it with things his audience cares about," says Stephen Zunes, Middle East expert at the University of San Francisco.

Perceptions of American evenhandedness in the region are particularly important now, because they affect the US ability to fight terrorism, he says. "The ability of key countries to work with the US to track down and root out terrorist groups - is diminished if a broad range of people see the US, and the CIA and FBI in particular, with animosity."

Call for restraint

The lack of a "call to Israel for restraint" from the White House could have implications for years to come, Mr. Murphy says, because it could end up associating the US with Israeli actions that only deepen the crisis. That happened once before, he says, in 1982 when then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig was perceived as giving a "green light" to then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to invade southern Lebanon. The invasion hurt US-Arab relations, says Murphy, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Others say that even if the Arab "street" remains calm in response to Israel's war on Arafat, Arabs may still view the conflict in a way that will adversely affect US relations in the region.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., says Arabs were angered by the US bombing of Iraqi soldiers retreating on the so-called "highway of death" during the Gulf War - which explains why bin Laden uses that image in his videos.

Mistrust of American intentions is so ingrained in Arab political culture that nothing the US does in the short term will change that, he says. But the "great job" the Bush administration has done "building bridges in the context of the war on terrorism," he adds, should be followed in the Middle East.

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