Arab, Muslim Leaders Want Linkage
A parade of Arab and Muslim leaders is passing through Washington, promising support for the U.S.-led effort against terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden — but also urging the administration to press harder for a cease-fire and new negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
This week there were strong indications administration policymakers are headed in just that direction, although exactly how far they are prepared to go is far from clear.
On Tuesday President George W. Bush, breaking with the policies of his Republican predecessors but echoing former President Bill Clinton, endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state.
"The idea of a Palestinian state has always been a part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected," he told reporters. "We are working diligently with both sides to encourage a reduction of violence so that meaningful discussions can take place.”
That came a day after reports that the administration was preparing a major new Israeli-Palestinian initiative in the days before the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, but that it was put on hold in the wake of the terrorism crisis.
Washington insiders say the administration has still not decided whether to revive that plan and exactly what its details might be. State Department sources emphasized that the debate over the level and direction of U.S. involvement in negotiations is continuing.
And they said that any meeting between Bush and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, one element of the reported initiative, depends on a significant reduction in violence — something that seemed even unlikelier after a Palestinian raid on a Jewish settlement in Gaza and Israel’s seizure of Palestinian-controlled land as a security buffer.
Pro-Israel leaders were quick to criticize the President’s nod to Palestinian statehood.
In a statement, leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) said that supporters of a new initiative that includes a Bush-Arafat meeting are “undermining America’s war against terrorism. They are encouraging the President to reward, rather than punish those that harbor and support terrorism.”
But the administration faces mounting pressure from the Arab and Moslem nations.
Last week Jordan’s King Abdullah ll was in town for the official signing of a new U.S.-Jordan free trade pact and to offer a combination of support and advice for the U.S. anti-terror effort.
“We’re here to give our full, unequivocal support to you and to the people of America,” the monarch said. “And we will stand by you in these very difficult times.” Washington sources say Jordan has already started sharing intelligence with U.S. officials on terror groups and their worldwide connections.
But Abdullah also told State Department officials that there is a direct connection between the extent of Jordan’s cooperation and the continuation of U.S. efforts to bring about a lasting Israeli-Palestinian cease fire. Unless Washington pushes hard for new negotiations, he warned, it will be more difficult to bring Arab and Moslem nations into the anti-terror coalition.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, stressing strong Jordanian support for the U.S. effort, conceded that the administration recognizes “what the King and others have told us, that (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) has a bearing on…how we go forward with the problem of terrorism.”
A similar message — made more urgent by the crumpling of the latest cease fire — came from visiting Turkish, Qatar, Saudi and Egyptian delegations.
Most observers say the administration, while increasing the pressure on both sides to end the violence, is not tilting against Israel in the interests of its anti-terror coalition.
“They are making it clear they won’t let Egypt or the others dictate the terms of their participation,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza, he said, have indicated that the administration is pursuing a number of different coalitions, not a single overarching one. “Missions will define the coalitions,” he said, “and not coalitions defining the mission.”
He said that ultimately, the U.S. effort could be good for Israel.
“If the U.S. really reshuffles the deck regionally in a way that radicalism is routed — like it was in 1991 — then it really might open up some important opportunities,” he said.
But he warned that fluid events and surging emotions among the American people make predictions risky.
“What happens in step two will depend very much on how step one goes,” he said. “This is just the first act in the opera.”
Anti-Terror Legislation on
Slow Side of Fast Track
Congress and the Bush administration are moving quickly toward passage of legislation that would give law enforcement agencies new tools to fight domestic terrorism.
Attorney General John Ashcroft spent the weekend warning of new attacks, and arguing that the new powers are needed to thwart them. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are choking on some of the administration’s proposals, as they have done during past terrorism scares.
The result: compromise language in both Houses that may ease civil liberties concerns without gutting the Justice Department proposals for expanded powers.
In a House compromise worked out early this week, Ashcroft will get an end to the statute of limitations for some terrorist offenses, and there will be language increasing the penalties for aiding or advising terrorists.
The government will get some new wiretap authority, but with more restrictions; the power to detain undocumented immigrants suspected of terror connections will be expanded, but it will not be unlimited. And many provisions of the new law may "sunset" after several years, presumably after the current emergency is over.
That still may not be enough to satisfy a coalition of civil rights, right wing and pro-gun groups, which fear the expansion of government authority.
Jewish groups, traditional allies of the civil liberties groups that have spearheaded the opposition, continue to play a wait-and-see game, with most signaling they will support much of the administration’s plan.
"Everybody wants to see the details of what comes out," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), a group closely identified with civil rights causes. "As long as the bills are moving targets, Jewish groups will keep a very low profile."
While the RAC has signaled some concerns about the administration proposal to both lawmakers and administration officials, Saperstein said that the current emergency has shifted the national security-civil liberties balance for most Jewish groups, at least in the short term.
"The Jewish community wants a really effective campaign against terror," he said. "But they want it done in a way that does not encroach any more than necessary into the civil liberties of Americans."
The Jewish community’s involvement has also been limited by the succession of holidays right in the middle of the debate. The anti-terror package could clear both Houses as early as next week.