October 25, 2001
With U.S.-Israel relations facing an explosive new crisis, a number of Israel representatives were in Washington this week, offering mixed messages about the intentions of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government.
Some Jewish leaders here said the conradictions could increase the likelihood of serious misunderstandings between the two allies as the U.S.-led war against terrorism intensifies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsens.
But the messages from the Bush administration were just as contradictory, touching off ripples of anger and concern across the Jewish world.
In private conversations with Jewish leaders and several public appearances, administration officials sought to counter fears that relentless diplomatic pressure by Arab and Muslim nations enlisted in the anti-terror fight was undercutting U.S.-Israel relations.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, speaking to the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) national convention Sunday, said that despite the coalition-building effort, America would not abandon Israel.
"We cannot have a victory if we make a coalition that sacrifices the interests of some for the interests of others," he said.
But administration actions seemed to tell a different story.
On Monday, the administration used its harshest language yet when it condemned Israel's incursion into six Palestinian towns in response to last week's assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said, "Israeli Defense Forces should be withdrawn immediately from all Palestinian-controlled areas, and no further such incursions should be made. We deeply regret and deplore Israeli Defense Force actions that have killed numerous Palestinian civilians over the weekend."
That infuriated leading pro-Israel lawmakers.
"It's obvious they are caving in to Arab pressure," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the Jewish delegation in the House. "It's so transparent, it's obscene."
Engel accused the administration of "rank hypocrisy" in criticizing Israel for doing the same thing U.S. forces are trying to do in Afghanistan: root out terrorists.
Jewish organizations were no happier with the new U.S. squeeze.
The State Department comments were "inappropriate, intemperate; and [they] defy logic in the face of current U.S. efforts in the war against terrorism," said leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Sharon, citing Israel's defense needs, rejected the U.S. demand for an immediate pullout; the administration then cranked up the pressure.
On Tuesday, Bush "dropped by" on a meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Even before the supposedly spontaneous meeting, the White House made it clear Bush would repeat his demand that Israeli troops be withdrawn immediately.
Bush reportedly told Peres that escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence is impeding U.S. coalition efforts in the war against terrorism.
The administration is also sending out conflicting messages about the ultimate scope of the U.S. war.
Wolfowitz, in his AJCongress speech, promised that Washington would expand the anti-terror effort, once Osama bin Laden and his network are destroyed. "We are not going just to pluck off individual snakes; we intend to drain the entire swamp," he said.
That could mean an eventual focus on Iraq, he told the group. But the State Department continues to emphasize the bin Laden fight and downplay concern about Saddam Hussein.
"They want to have it both ways," said an official with a major Jewish group here. "The result is a message that is very garbled." - J.D. Besser