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Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2001 / 28 Tishrei, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Divide and Conquer

The war on terror is just, but Powell's efforts to isolate Israel are not -- IN the weeks since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, a lively debate in policy circles has been carried on about the wisdom of a wide and narrow approach to the war on terrorism.

Predictably, the debate seemed to break down along lines that were familiar. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the State Department diplomatic bureaucracy campaigned hard against widening the war to include all other Arab regimes that support terror. That would give a pass to Syria and Iraq, not to mention the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat. Against that position were various strategic analysts, including Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Along the way, Israel and its friends in this country wound up getting dragged into the melee. The result was not only a series of events that undermined the U.S.-Israel alliance, but the reopening of a deep rift within American Jewry as well.

But the launch of allied air strikes against Afghanistan last Sunday will probably put an end, at least temporarily, to that discussion. So long as American troops are in the field bringing some measure of retribution to Osama bin Laden's Al Quaida terrorists and the Taliban regime, backbiting at the Pentagon and sniping at the administration in Washington will stop.

But in writing about this period of decision, as the Bush administration prepared itself - and America - for war, historians will have a field day analyzing the way in which Powell seemed to carry the day in establishing a limited war policy. The State Department appears to have not only carried that argument, but was able to overturn the pro-Israel policies that had characterized the first eight months of Bush's presidency.

That did not appear to be the case on Sept. 20, when Bush addressed Congress and the nation to announce plans for his war on terrorism. In that speech - though he carefully sought to frame the battle as one that did not threaten all of Islam - he pulled no punches when it came to terrorists. Bush claimed this war would know no boundaries, and would make no distinctions between the terrorists themselves and those who aid and shelter them.

Within days, it became clear that this far-reaching rhetoric would not be reflected in U.S. policy. Talk of a comprehensive campaign quickly subsided. This may have been dictated by the meager forces at Bush's disposal. But just as telling in this debate was another idea refloated from the Persian Gulf war - a broad Arab coalition that would enable Bush to not only defeat the Taliban and bin Laden, but would reinforce America's strategic hold on the Middle East. And that would mean a wide Arab coalition, including many countries that are open supporters of terrorism, especially when it is focused against Israel.

Thus, rather than the war on terror incorporating a new mindset in Washington about terror, the State Department was able to refloat the most tired cliche of American foreign policy in the last 30 years --- resolution of the Arab-Israel peace process as the key to good relations with the Arab world and to regional stability.

Though it flew in the face of President Bush's bold and courageous talk to Congress, in Washington there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come and gone.

For decades, Arabists in the State Department have done their best to conjure up a peace process in which Israeli concessions to the Palestinians would buy the U.S. peace and friendship among all Arab states. To that end, pressure has been placed on Israel to give up land and security to mollify America's Arab "friends."

This process reached its apogee in the waning days of the Clinton administration, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians virtually everything they could want - including a state, half of Jerusalem and almost every inch of the disputed territories. The result was a flat-out refusal by Arafat, followed by the launching of a yearlong campaign of anti-Israel terrorism that has taken the lives of hundreds of Jews and Arabs.

Rather than draw conclusions from these facts, Powell chose to use the post Sept. 11 period to reward Arafat for his own terror policy and further isolate Israel. He pushed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to allow new negotiations with Arafat despite the continuing violence, and forced him to accept the pretense of a cease-fire to bolster America's position.

This reached its peak last week when a cleverly leaked story wound up on the front page of The New York Times on Oct. 2, claiming that the Bush administration was ready to launch an initiative backing a Palestinian state before Sept. 11, and would now revive it in an effort to woo more Arab support for the conflict with bin Laden.

This served Powell's purpose of sending a signal to Saudi Arabia and other American "allies" that this administration would finally be prepared to take up where Clinton left off last January.

Powell's demand for Israeli adherence to a cease-fire that Arafat and the Palestinians ignored (with dozens of increasingly bloody attacks on Israeli civilians) was compounded by the deliberate omission of Palestinian terror groups from the list of organizations whose assets were frozen by the United States.

From inside the administration, there came off-the-record comments that all of this was smoke and mirrors designed to please the Arabs, yet meaningless in terms of real policy. But few in Israel or the American Jewish community were reassured.

That led American Jewish leaders to upbraid the administration for a double-standard on terror and its feckless treatment of the only democratic state in the Middle East. Characteristically, Sharon went overboard, comparing administration appeasement of the Arabs to Britain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938.

But Powell's campaign also produced a split in the Jewish world, with the remnants of the otherwise discredited peace camp issuing a statement implicitly supporting supporting Bush pressure on Israel in opposition to the mainstream community's dissent. Spearheaded by the Israel Policy Forum, this initiative served Powell's purpose in undermining domestic support for Israel at a time when Arab terror attacks on that country had otherwise discredited the peace process.

This was an impressive achievement. In the year since the launch of Arafat's war, American Jewry had come together in support of Israel in a way which recalled the spirit of solidarity of 1967 and 1973.

But the Israel Policy Forum-sponsored statement undercut that fragile unity. Framed in patriotic rhetoric that implored support for the president at at time of crisis, this highly publicized letter at once revived the political division of American Jewry and helped undercut both Jewish unity and Israel's principled stand against Arafat.

But even though Powell's campaign to win the hearts and minds of an Islamic world that seems to sympathize more with bin Laden than it does with Bush may be doomed to failure, his efforts to isolate Israel may have a long-term impact on the region and on American Jewry.

By legitimizing Arafat at a time when his policies of violence should have eliminated him for consideration as a peace partner, the State Department has consigned Israel to more terror and fruitless peace talks without materially aiding the American war effort in Afghanistan.

Bush's war on terror is a righteous cause. By eliminating bin Laden, it will hopefully make the world a safer place, even if it does leave most of the planet's other leading terrorists safe and sound.

But although they are doomed to defeat in his conflict with America, bin Laden's terrorists have managed one more victory. They gave the State Department an excuse to resume pressure on Israel and helped divide American Jews at a time when they should have united behind an embattled Israel.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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