Sept. 11 Forced Shift to Israel
It was only a day after the Twin Towers had fallen, and already it seemed that United States policy toward Israel was changing.
Walking into a packed briefing room on Sept. 12, Secretary of State Colin Powell outlined America’s intention to retaliate against Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist group and head off the threat of subsequent attacks.
"I think when you are attacked by a terrorist, and you know who the terrorist is, and you can fingerprint back to the cause of the terror, you should respond," Powell said. "If you are able to stop terrorist attacks, you should stop terrorist attacks."
Many pro-Israel activists hoped those words, along with countless other utterances in the weeks and months that followed, would force the United States to drop its "even-handed" approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli policies like targeted killings of terrorists and military incursions into Palestinian areas, which once brought rebukes from the United States, seemed to be little different to the pro-Israel community from what American forces were doing in Afghanistan — and Israel’s supporters hoped the similarities would be noticed.
Almost a year later, analysts say they believe the United States has noticed: It is increasingly empathetic to Israel’s plight in the face of Palestinian terror, and U.S. policy has shifted substantially.
But it was not a knee-jerk reaction, analysts say.
"The government went through an evolution," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank.
After the initial empathy toward Israel, the Bush White House began to broaden its view of the war on terrorism and considered an attack against Iraq. The need for Arab support was seen as crucial to the effort, and there was concern that Israeli concessions to the Palestinians would be demanded as an enticement to Arab states to join a coalition to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power.
For several months, pressure grew on Israel to drop its insistence that Palestinian violence end before peace talks could resume, and the Bush administration began to speak openly about a future Palestinian state.
All that was necessary, it appeared, was for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to take some steps against terrorism — or at least appear to do so — for the ball to be placed firmly in Israel’s court.
"In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, there developed an unexpected opening for U.S. influence on the Palestinians to end their terrorism," said Henry Siegman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
But Arafat, misreading the new geostrategic map, gambled that he could continue sponsoring terrorism without sacrificing American support — and miscalculated badly.
The turning point came in January, when Arafat baldly lied to the Bush administration about his ties to a shipment of 50 tons of forbidden weapons from Iran, a charter member of President Bush’s "Axis of Evil."
The Bush administration found that, in any case, it would not have Arab support for its actions in Iraq. Bush vowed to go into Iraq alone if necessary, reducing the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a factor in American planning.
"The Arab leverage is much reduced because they are not onboard and are not about to be," Pipes said. "Earlier attempts to win their approval have ended, and one sees a much tougher-minded Arab policy."
The new U.S. perspective has been one of increasing empathy and tolerance for Israeli self-defense tactics. Much of the change coincided with a rash of suicide bombings around Passover in late March, including one at a seder in Netanya that killed 29 Israelis.
"I think the Passover bombing was suddenly viewed as something more comparable to the Twin Towers," said Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli diplomat. "That probably cemented American attitudes toward Israel."
Looking around the Middle East, America saw few real friends aside from Israel. In the eyes of the American public and government, skepticism has grown about the Arab states’ true allegiances. Ben-David said the most significant change since the Sept. 11 attacks is the new scrutiny given to radical Muslim groups.
"Before Sept. 11, people discounted what was being said in the Muslim world," he said. "Osama bin Laden was threatening for several years and no one took it seriously. Arafat was threatening and people didn’t take it seriously."
American frustration with the actions of the Palestinians and Arafat has grown. Many were startled by the scenes of Palestinians dancing in the streets after the World Trade Center collapsed. But it was the arms shipment from Iran that placed the Palestinian leadership squarely in the category of a friend of terrorism, in the minds of the Bush administration.
Presumed links between Saudi Arabia and Palestinian terrorist groups, and between Arafat and Hussein, also helped place the Palestinians on the wrong side of Bush’s "you’re either with us or against us" equation.
In contrast, the past year has seen greater U.S. reliance on Israel. So often the beneficiary of the U.S.-Israeli alliance, Israel was able to give the United States advice and resources on the new challenges America faced in the post-Sept. 11 world, such as airline and homeland security and information on the terrorist infrastructure. Analysts also said that the shift toward Iraq as a target has solidified U.S. attitudes toward Israel.
"When the United States went after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Israel was a problem," Ben-David said. "For the United States to go after Saddam Hussein, Israel is not the same problem."
But with the Bush administration divided on the wisdom of attacking Iraq, some voices still believe the United States should be courting Arab support.
By and large, however, administration hawks who advocate regime change in Iraq are winning the president’s ear, and there has been less open courting of Arab leaders.
Hypothetical questions remain as to whether U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East would have evolved as it did regardless of Sept. 11, given the intensification of the Palestinian terror onslaught. But analysts say that Sept. 11 focused the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
"We tend to forget that prior to Sept. 11, the administration was simply uninvolved" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Siegman said.