US gives Israel green light to 'defend itself' against terrorists

War on terrorism
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The Independent Online

The White House said that Israel had the right to defend itself against Palestinian suicide bombings, and placed the onus of resolving the latest crisis squarely on Yasser Arafat.

As the Bush administration grimly contemplated the collapse of its first serious peace initiative even before it had properly begun, the President's spokesman conspicuously avoided any of Washington's usual formulations about the need for Israel to show restraint, or that its reprisals were "disproportionate."

Israel was a sovereign state, and "obviously has the right to defend itself. The President understands that very clearly," Ari Fleischer declared, minutes after Israeli missiles slammed into Palestinian-ruled Gaza City in the first retaliation to the bombings in Haifa and Jerusalem, for which the Hamas extremist group has claimed responsibility.

Beyond that, his only caution for Israel was to reiterate the remark of Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, that all parties "must be cognisant of the consequences of their actions." The White House firmly believes that is up to the Palestinian leader to show that he is in control, at what General Powell has called a "moment of truth" for Mr Arafat. Not only were the attacks "dastardly acts of terror, they were attacks against his authority."

US officials say that the tough steps they are now urging should have been taken weeks or months ago. They claim that had Mr Arafat permanently rounded up those responsible for previous attacks and not quietly released them soon afterwards, the present crisis might have been avoided.

Mr Fleischer returned to that theme yesterday, stressing that Mr Arafat now had "a real opportunity... to show in actions, not words, that he stands for peace, and that he will take action that is enduring, and meaningful" against those who sponsored the attacks. He had a "100 per cent obligation to stop the violence."

Otherwise, despite vague assurances that the US remained committed to the search for peace, Washington appeared at a complete loss yesterday what to do next. Mr Fleischer gave no details of the hastily rearranged discussions on Sunday here between Mr Bush and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister.

A further sign of uncertainty was the reported cancellation of a presidential press event yesterday afternoon that would have forced Mr Bush to face specific questions on his Middle East policy. In the meantime, the Administration has to find answers to some fundamental questions – above all, whether Mr Arafat is any longer worth dealing with, or whether he has irretrievably lost control.

For the time being, the retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, and William Burns, a senior State Department official, will continue their mediation efforts in the region. Even at its outset, the task looked daunting, given the failure of General Powell to come up with any new proposals during a heavily trailed speech on the Middle East. In the wake of the attacks, the general has found himself booed by audiences in Israel, and yesterday his task looked more impossible than ever.

Despite the virtual silence of the White House, there was speculation that behind the scenes Mr Bush was urging caution, in the awareness that, with no obvious replacement for Mr Arafat, however discredited, any move to oust him could only make matters worse.

The crisis was one of the worst between Israelis and Palestinians in the past 40 years, said Lawrence Eagleburger, a former Secretary of State under George Bush Snr. "But in the end, the Israelis have to listen to us." It was unclear last night how much pressure Mr Bush was exerting.

Edward Walker, the President of the Middle East Institute here, said that Mr Arafat could check terrorism if he was resolutely backed by the US, Europe and moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and if Israel did not launch counterattacks against Palestinian security forces who would ultimately have to carry out the arrests. If Mr Sharon went after Mr Arafat in person, "the result will be just more chaos, more terrorism."