Text size

The U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan is forcing Israel and the Palestinians to play unaccustomed and unwanted roles, with Israel forced to sit out a war on terror, while Yasser Arafat's police gunned down demonstrating Palestinians in the streets of Gaza.

Afraid of rattling patron ally Washington and stung by Osama bin Laden's bid to link his brand of mega-terror to the Palestinian issue, Israeli leaders did their best Monday to do what they generally do the worst - act as bench-warming cheerleaders and sit on their hands as the U.S. and British war machines went into action over Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer were effusive in praise for the aircraft and missile onslaught, lauding it as courageous and capably managed.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, had serious problems of its own, and from an unfamiliar source. PA police, confronted by thousands of pro-bin Laden demonstrators marching through the streets of Gaza, opened fire with live ammunition and used tear-gas in an effort to disperse the protest, killing at least three protesters.

They were the first Palestinians killed by PA security forces since the uprising began more than a year ago.

The march threatened to cause damage to Yasser Arafat's shaky Authority from within and without. At a time when the Authority seeks to warm its relations with the White House, the very fact of the march threatened to rekindle western memories of news footage of Palestinians welcoming the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Ben-Eliezer insisted that despite Israel's having been pointedly left out of the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition, "absolutely under no circumstances" was the Bush administration ashamed of traditionally close relations between Washington and the Jewish state.

Israel's defense establishment, following overnight consultations, decided against changing the nation's military and civil-defense posture. But officials unsettled Israelis by repeated announcements that there was no "immediate" missile or other external threat and that there was "low probability, for the moment" of a recurrence of Gulf War-type Scud missile attacks that struck Israel dozens of times from Iraq.

At the same time, the threat of a wave of reprisal terrorism following the night attacks against a range of targets in Afghanistan was weighing heavily on Ben-Eliezer's mind. The grizzled ex-general said that not only were Israeli forces remaining on alert, but Jewish institutions abroad might also be hit in retaliation for the offensive against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts.

"It's nothing new that we're on bin Laden's map" of possible terrorist targets, Ben-Eliezer said, counseling Israelis to remain calm. "I am more worried about Jewish targets around the world. He is liable to get to these targets as well."

Last week, Israeli-U.S. relations hit a low point when an angry Prime Minister Ariel Sharon invoked the memory of pre-World War Two British attempts to appease Nazi Germany's Adolph Hitler, in suggesting publicly that the White House might sell out the Jewish state in order to induce Arab and other Muslim states to join the anti-bin Laden coalition. "Israel will not be Czechoslovakia," Sharon said in a speech that hit a note of marked dissonance in a White House seeking a measure of Israeli-Palestinian calm.

U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, bristling at a radio talk show host's suggestion that he might feel as though he were his nation's envoy to Czechoslovakia, said: "I'm not even going to relate to that question."

Kurtzer added that the tempest in Israeli-U.S. relations had passed: "We have excellent relations with the government of Israel, and those will continue," he said.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres went on the offensive against bin Laden's broadcast suggestions that terrorism would continue and "America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine."

The foreign minister, who reportedly met senior Palestinian officials Abu Ala and Saeb Erekat overnight in secret talks, told Israel Radio that the statement proved that, "A prattler can be a murderer or that a murderer can also be a prattler."

"What's he blabbering about?" Peres continued. "You don't need any war of liberation for the Palestinians - we offered them liberation without war. Who needs him?"

Peres said that there was "a difference of opinion between us and the Palestinians over three to four percent of the territory. Is this a reason to kill six or seven thousand people in New York. Just because of one lunatic - who appointed him? What people? What will he bring the world besides murder, killing, hatred and idiocy?"

For the Palestinians, the timing of the pro-bin Laden demonstrations and their bloody outcome could not have been worse. The Palestinian Authority has been anxious to show Washington its support for a war on terror and was much embarrassed by Palestinian expressions of joy following the attacks upon the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September.

According to Ha'eretz military commentator Ze'ev Schiff, "Officials here (in Israel) believe that so long as the attacks are not directed against Arab targets such as Iraq or Hezbollah, it is not likely that Saddam Hussein, Hezbollah or others will declare Israel to be a legitimate target for attack.

"However, they stress that Israel should remain extremely alert about the possibility of an enraged bin Laden deciding to vent his anger via terror strikes against Israeli targets. At this extremely sensitive moment, Israel must show restraint, and not look for an opportunity to strike Palestinian targets by using the American-British action in Afghanistan as cover. Israel should focus right now on defense, and thwarting terror plans."

Schiff, writing in Monday's paper, says that "Just as Saddam Hussein tried to drag Israel into the fighting when the U.S.-led coalition moved to liberate Kuwait from his clutches, so too might Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah try to provoke Israel in days ahead, looking to open up a "second front" and wear down the Americans.

"Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah," he writes, "could launch attacks against Israel, hoping for a sharp Israeli response that could throw the whole region into a tailspin."