As War Cries Ring Out, U.S. Silence May Signal Rare Free Hand for Israeli Military Moves

The Bush administration may be tacitly granting Israel its widest military freedom of action since - in an ominous precedent - a Republican administration turned a blind eye to Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

With talk of all-out war resounding in the Holy Land, the Bush administration has granted Israel its widest military freedom of action since - in an ominous precedent - a Republican administration turned a blind eye to Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Hardliners on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have issued repeated calls to turn a runaway spiral of escalation into full-bore military conflict. Although their war cries have often been been sounded in the past, Washington's tacit approval of recent IDF military moves, coupled with its continuing pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on militants in his midst, represents a marked departure from nearly two decades of nominal American even-handedness toward the battling sides.

Even U.S. diplomats whom Israeli hawks have viewed with suspicion as overly balanced toward the Palestinians, have weighed in on the side of non-intervention with IDF operations. Pressed by leftist Jewish and Arab students to speak out against Israeli military policies in the territories, U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer declared Wednesday:

"I have to tell you honestly - we are not going to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States is not going to do it. If the people, the Israelis and Palestinians, don't put pressure on their governments to solve it, it doesn't matter who you get as a third party. The EU is not going to solve it, the UN is not going to solve it, Russia is not going to solve it, the United States is not going to solve it. It's going to require a deep, enduring commitment of the Israeli and Palestinian people to want to solve it, and then we can come in and help do so.

The Twin Towers and Pentagon terror strikes, as manifest in U.S. domestic politics, are at the root of the sea-change in U.S. policy toward the conflict, observes Ha'aretzcommentator Akiva Eldar. In American eyes, "September 11 has dramatically changed the balance of powers" in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, Eldar says. In the new perception, Israel is seen as the equivalent of New York and the Pentagon, an identification only reinforced by recent news footage of Palestinian gunmen killing civilians celebrating a bat mitzva in Hadera or returning home from work on a main Jerusalem thoroughfare.

"Since Bin Laden is not currently in the headlines, Arafat has in a sense been replacing him" in the popular view. "So Arafat is actually becoming what Sharon wanted him to be, Israel's version of Bin Laden," Eldar continues.

Only at the beginning of the 1982 Lebanon war, when then-defense minister Ariel Sharon convinced Reagan White House officials that only a limited incursion was contemplated, has Israel enjoyed such a free hand to carry out military policy, independent of the ally that supplies it with indispensable military aid and materiel, Eldar says.

A decidedly pro-Israel tone among U.S.elected officials has become more evident as November Congressional elections near. In an unprecendented circumstance - and in the face of security threats - there have been no fewer than nine U.S. Congressional delegations visiting Israel in the last two weeks. Most, vowing support for Israel, snubbed Arafat altogether.

In the highest-profile visit of an American dignitary, former president Bill Clinton embraced Sharon, openly telling his Israeli hosts that the Palestinian leader was to blame for the failure of what Clinton called the "golden opportunity" for peace that the previous Israeli government had offered him at the ill-fated July, 2000 Camp David summit

At present, the only substantial pressure being applied on the Bush administration from domestic constituencies is coming from pro-Israel figures, Eldar says. U.S. officials have said privately that the American Jewish community has taken administration officials to task for maintaining channels of communication with Arafat and his deputies.

"The Arab lobby, the Egyptians, the Saudis don't seem to care anymore," Eldar says, adding that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has refrained from applying brakes on Sharon, while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials are concentrating their Middle East attentions almost exclusively on Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Arafat has also undermined his own cause, Eldar notes, having embarassed Jerusalem-based U.S. diplomats, traditionally his allies and advocates, by lying to them on such key issues as curbing militants and Palestinian involvement in the weapons-laden ship intercepted by Israel.

"Arafat hasn't changed. What has changed is Israel's strategy," Eldar says. "Shimon Peres told the Knesset recently that we'd had five quiet days, but when Sharon was asked about it, he said there hadn't been quiet for as much as a minute. The Palestinians are now convinced that Sharon keeps provoking the violence, and that the Americans refuse to see this."

In the end, the White House may find its current policy counter-productive - perhaps dangerously so. "At the end of the day, when the fire gets out of control, it may hit American targets here and elsewhere. Then, the U.S. will have to do something. But it may be too late, because Arafat may by then have lost control."

Eldar says that, from the Bush Aministration's standpoint, the red line that Sharon dare not cross is assassinating Arafat. "They are afraid of the chaos that might ensue. The embassy and the CIA are telling Washington that no one knows what will happen after Arafat, and the chances that it will get worse are greater than the chances of any improvement."