December 5, 2002
Kenya Attacks Blur Lines of Terrorism
Israel gets U.S. sympathy, but little leeway against Palestinians.
The attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya are not expected to divert the United States from a possible war with Iraq -- or change U.S. limits on Israel's response to Palestinian terror. One immediate effect of the Nov. 28 attacks, thought to be the work of Al Qaeda, may be a subtle change in the way Israel is perceived in the context of the war on terror.
Until now, the Bush administration has tried to distinguish between terror attacks like those of Sept. 11 and Palestinian terror attacks against Israel. Essentially, the administration has argued that the U.S. struggle is an uncompromising one against terrorists bent on destroying democratic values, while Israel's war is a nationalistic dispute that must be solved through negotiations.
While the administration has condemned both kinds of attacks, some have argued that the distinction granted a sort of legitimacy -- at least in many parts of the West -- to Palestinian terrorism.
But last week's attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel and an Israeli passenger plane in Kenya may blur those lines, analysts said.
"It highlights the fact that the myth -- that all terror against Israel is because it occupies Palestinian territories -- is wrong," said Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The blurring of the line between Palestinian and other terrorism may make Arab support harder to come by if the United States goes to war against Iraq, a State Department official said.
Arab states have been leery of what they see as the war on terror's disproportionate focus on Arab and Muslim states. Their resistance to an Iraq war may rise if the Kenya attacks are subsumed into the war on terror and Arabs begin to believe that the United States is attacking Baghdad because of the attacks on Israel.
The attacks initially were claimed by an unknown group calling itself the Army of Palestine, but both Israel and the United States believe the attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda.
"Despite the name of the group that claimed responsibility, this does not seem to be a perceived act of Palestinian nationalism," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
An Internet posting attributed to Al Qaeda claims responsibility for the attacks. A "Letter to the American People," also purportedly from Al Qaeda and posted to the Internet several days before the Kenya attacks, for the first time defines support for Israel as the root cause of Al Qaeda's hatred of the United States.
Analysts say the use of the front name indicates that Al Qaeda is trying to capitalize on the Palestinian issue to build support.
For Israel, the attacks may garner more sympathy from the American public and the Bush administration, but they are not expected to ease U.S. constraints on Israeli military actions against Palestinian terrorism. They also are not expected to alter the U.S. position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be solved diplomatically, or change U.S. backing for the "road map" toward peace crafted by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.
Israel probably will still find limits to the steps it can take against Palestinian terrorists, experts say.
The State Department frequently has criticized Israel for "targeted killings" and other tactics against Palestinian terrorists. Any Israeli actions that cause civilian casualties still will likely earn American reprimands. However, Israel may be given more leeway to strike at the perpetrators of the Kenya attacks.
"We recognize it creates pressure for the Israeli leadership," one State Department official said. "The Israeli people desire to have justice done as well."
If Israel does launch an attack with U.S. blessing, it will be a shift in policy for the Bush administration, which has tried to keep Israeli military action to a minimum during the run-up to a possible U.S. war with Iraq.
But the State Department seems to understand that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may feel it necessary to respond to preserve political face, especially as Israeli elections approach next month.
Israeli officials hope the Kenya attacks also will solidify perceptions of Israel as a victim of terrorism, and lead to an increase in international and American support. The attacks may make it easier for the United States approve up to $10 billion in loan guarantees and an extra $200 million in emergency aid for Israel. But the United States is not likely to shift its policies on the war against terrorism because of the Kenya attacks.
"Our problem with Al Qaeda didn't need this to get people's attention," Alterman said. "It highlights the importance of a global war on terrorism, with the emphasis on global."