Linkage, Redux

Despite aggressive spin control by Jewish leaders in the United States, the battle against the worldwide terror network of Osama bin Laden is already churning U.S.-Israel relations and resulting in intensified pressure on Jerusalem to work out a cease-fire with the Palestinians.

That pressure was evident in recent days as the State Department pushed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to allow the long-delayed meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which took place on Wednesday. Another meeting was discussed for next week (seepage 14).

The growing linkage between the two foreign policy problems facing the Bush administration was also apparent in this week’s decision freezing the assets of 27 international terror groups, a list that does not include anti-Israel terror groups, despite Bush’s promise to wage a genuinely global anti-terror battle.

The mounting coalition effort has radically reshuffled all of the administration’s foreign policy priorities, said Henry Siegman, director of the Mideast program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"One of the very first things that changed [after Sept. 11] is that this administration abandoned the position that it doesn’t want to get dragged into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said.

One immediate result of that change: the administration is now "involved in pressuring both sides," Siegman said.

Washington officials do not expect breakthroughs in Israel-Palestinian negotiations, but they want both leaders to move swiftly to put the lid back on the boiling pot, and start moving back to a political process by implementing the Mitchell Report.

The linkage between the anti-terror war and U.S. efforts along the Israeli-Palestinian front will only increase as the administration seeks Arab and Muslim allies, Siegman said.

The Sharon government is slowly coming to terms with this new geopolitical landscape, according to Siegman — "although they’re desperately unhappy with it."

The connection between the new U.S.-led effort and changes in Mideast policy have also been evident in the nature of the coalition Washington is assembling.

U.S. officials hope to enlist at least nominal support from Syria and Iran — themselves state sponsors of terrorism. They also want to solidify support from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which will not participate if Israel has a prominent place in the coalition effort.

Some pro-Israel leaders say that’s a mistake: "This is an American effort; others should be invited to join, and if they don’t want to, fine, we’ll go it alone," said Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum.

But the administration is very sensitive to charges that it is waging a "Christian crusade" against the Islamic world, and desperately wants Arab and Muslim cover — even if it means signing up the likes of Iran, Syria and the PLO.

Israeli officials say they understand that need — but chafe at once again being told to stay out of sight while Washington makes overtures to its enemies.

Jewish officials worry that countries such as Syria and Iran could receive "get-of-jail-free cards" covering their own involvement in terror, and that they may get a lifting of U.S. economic and military export restrictions in return for just nominal cooperation.

Pro-Israel leaders say the linkage question has become far more complicated than it was during the 1991 Gulf War, when Israel was shuffled to the sidelines of the U.S.-led effort and pressured not to respond to Iraqi missile attacks.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said that the return of linkage "has created the fear that Israel may be asked to pay an unacceptably high price — first by being pushed faster on the peace process than it feels it can safely go, and secondly by seeing certain Arab and Islamic states handsomely rewarded for their participation in the coalition, whatever form that takes."

But the scope and complexity of this new and unprecedented war against a globe-spanning network means the entire nexus of U.S. strategic interests has changed.

Harris said Israel should look at what’s happening to India as Washington desperately courts Pakistan, its authoritarian neighbor and longtime enemy.

"U.S. priorities have changed, and India’s place in U.S. diplomacy has changed," he said. "Israel and India have a lot to talk about these days."

While acknowledging new U.S. pressure for an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and ongoing concerns in Washington about the impact of Israel’s participation in the anti-terror alliance, Jewish activists caution that it’s too early to predict that the Jewish State will get the short end of "Operation Enduring Freedom."

If the new U.S. pressure is fair — and if it succeeds in convincing Arafat to abandon violence once and for all — it "could serve a useful purpose," said Jess Hordes, Washington representative for the Anti-Defamation League. "If Israel is pressured just to accept cosmetic changes as a basis for going forward, that would be a step backward."

Israeli officials say Arafat is anxious to join the U.S.-led coalition and get out of Washington’s doghouse. But to do that, the administration is reportedly telling him, he must hasten to end the intifada and move back toward the negotiating table.