Weighing Words Carefully

In the Middle East, where words are weighed carefully, Secretary of State Colin Powell's criticism of Israel for an "excessive and disproportionate" response to Palestinian attacks is likely to be viewed as a watershed event.

For three months, the Bush administration has been exceptionally sympathetic and supportive of Israel as it tries to cope with a renewed Palestinian uprising and refuses to resume negotiations under attack.

Symbolically, perhaps, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was the first Middle East leader invited to the White House by President Bush. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, hosted frequently by former President Clinton, has not been invited.

The signal to Arafat undoubtedly is he must do more to end the violence before he can take up lodging at Blair House again.

Sharon was followed to the White House by the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan. Next week the president of Lebanon will come.

Will Arafat be invited? "There's nothing to report at this time," Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said Tuesday.

On the face of it, Powell's statement was not all that unusual. It included a familiar appeal to both sides to exercise restraint. It blamed the Palestinians for provoking the latest flurry of fighting with a mortar attack on an Israeli town.

A day earlier, the State Department blamed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas for triggering an Israel attack on Syrian-run radar installations in Lebanon.

But criticism of Israel by the Bush administration is unusual, and among the Arabs it might be taken as a message that the tilt toward Jerusalem is going to be corrected.


Samuel Lewis, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977 to 1985, doesn't find Powell's statement all that surprising.

The Bush administration has to "keep its credibility with other governments and with the Arabs," and there is no way even a pro-Israel administration can avoid it, Lewis said in an interview.

There is basic sympathy for Israel in every U.S. administration, and Sharon has been "deliberately holding back" in responding to escalating Palestinian attacks, thereby "giving Arafat a chance to knock it off," Lewis said.

But with Arafat and his colleagues turning up the heat, it was inevitable that Sharon would hit back hard — and that, in Lewis's view, prompted Powell's statement.

Sandy Berger, the national security adviser to President Clinton, found Powell's statement appropriate and said he was glad to see the Bush administration weighing in.

On the peacemaking front, it is essential to lower U.S. sights amid the violence, Berger said. "No one in his right mind could be thinking of a comprehensive settlement" at this point, he said.

But, he said, "it remains critically important that the United States remain engaged."

The administration ought to be marshaling other forces in the region to lean on the two sides to back off, and "if that has been taking place it certainly has been quiet," Brger said critically.

The Bush administration has been exhorting Arafat and the Palestinians to restore order.

But Christopher Ross, U.S. ambassador to Syria from 1991 to 1998, said that does little good "without at the same time addressing Israeli actions that contribute to an atmosphere of tensions."

"The violence is not going to go away unless both sides of the equation are addressed," Ross said.

The retired diplomat said the Bush administration tried "to remove itself one step from the situation." But the Middle East is a vitally important region, he said, and "we cannot ignore it. Unless we are more active, events will force themselves on us."

These are the traditional views, but the Bush administration's approach has been somewhat different.

Arafat's rejection last year of Israel's offer of statehood, control over part of Jerusalem and at least 92 percent of the West Bank plus Gaza contributed both to Sharon's landslide election and to a growing feeling that a limit had been reached on what Israel could reasonably give.

Bush was unlikely in the first place to put heat on Israel, and any slim chance that he might push for concessions dissolved.

By nature, Bush is not inclined to micromanage peacemaking in the Middle East — as Clinton did — nor to any other international problem.

What other presidents have said, Bush evidently truly believes: Peacemaking is up to the parties in conflict.

Powell's statement, it should be noted, did not challenge Israel's right to self-defense — only the force Israel used and its temporary reoccupation of a sliver of the Gaza Strip.

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