Last Tuesday, July 23, was the Egyptian National Day. It also marked the jubilee celebration of the military coup led in 1952 by the "Free Officers" - an event that, more than any other, shaped the Middle East in the post-World War II era. Early that morning, a few hours after the killing of Salah Shehadeh, Geoff O'Connell telephoned the office of Shin Bet director Avi Dichter, and then made a carbon copy call to IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. "Great job," said O'Connell, head of the CIA branch in Israel.
It was a broad hint of what was coming, of the considerable support of the Bush administration for the Israeli action, much to the chagrin and frustration of certain persons in the region, first and foremost Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose celebration was eclipsed by the bombing. Washington's strongest expression of support could be found in the American announcement to the UN Security Council, that from now on it would only accept censure of Israel in the Palestinian context in conjunction with condemnations of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. And fellow Security Council member Syria was once again asked to expel the terror command headquarters from Damascus.
The Shehadeh affair showed that there has indeed been a fundamental shift in America's approach to the region: For the first time in their histories, Washington and Jerusalem are now fighting the same enemies. Before September 11 and before Yasser Arafat's decision to continue to cling to terror, the front had never been this united. During the Cold War, America's cool calculations of the "Israel - asset or burden?" balance sheet dipped against Israel (for strategic considerations) no less than in favor of Israel (for political considerations), and even though, since the days of David Ben-Gurion, Israel has been firmly in the American camp, it was never too interested in clearly assigning the role of enemy to the Soviets.
Terrorism has been considered an American adversary since the '70s, but then it was perceived simply as another, secondary arrow in the Soviet quiver. Typical of that era is the weekly terrorism report prepared by the CIA around Christmas of 1974: PLO head Yasser Arafat praises a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv (Chen Cinema, Popular Front); there are concerns about a possible assassination attempt on prime minister Golda Meir during a visit to New York and Canada; and the CIA warned that "a new organization, the composition of which is not known, that calls itself `The Ebenezer Scrooge Martyrs' Group,' is plotting an attack on the annual courier flight operated by the Government of North Pole, and its prime minister and chief courier, S. Claus." In that oh-so-innocent era, this amusing bit of levity was considered acceptable. Osama bin Laden wiped the smirks off their faces.
In a lecture he delivered earlier this year, the CIA's deputy director of operations, Jim Pavitt, explained American intelligence's failure to penetrate Al Qaeda - the failure to penetrate the agents who are so critical for the supplementing of electronic data-gathering. It is a zealous and almost familial organization, said Pavitt; aliens would not be absorbed in any way. "I personally doubt that anything short of one of the knowledgeable inner circle personnel or hijackers turning himself in to us would have given us sufficient foreknowledge to have prevented the horrendous slaughter that took place on the 11th," said Pavitt.
This is why Pavitt and his colleagues are so astounded by the intelligence and operational triumphs of the Shin Bet and the IDF in thwarting terrorist attacks. President Bush has outlined the fight against terror, as a major effort, to the entire American system. The institutionalization of this fight - including the recent formation of an Office of Homeland Security - is drawing in its wake governmental agencies and officials whose sympathies are not usually with Israel.
From the moment that the president decided, with congressional encouragement, that Hamas and other Palestinian groups (as well as Hezbollah) would be on the same blacklist that is headed by Al Qaeda, and that these organizations' commanders are in Washington's gunsights (Bush now assesses that it is highly probable that bin Laden was killed in Afghanistan sometime before January of this year), it was only natural that the killing of a terrorist commander would be received with compliments, not condemnations. The division of labor is clear: Bush attacks terror, and leaves his spokesman to half-heartedly express his sorrow about the outsize nature of the operation against Shehadeh and the civilian deaths - but not about the operation itself.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now