U.S. backs Israeli attacks Support of strikes against Lebanon seen as shift in policy

April 16, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After past Israeli attacks into Lebanon, Washington reactions usually were models of diplomatic vagueness, calling on all sides to show restraint and deploring the region's cycle of violence.

Not this time.

Since the Israelis began military strikes against Hezbollah (Party of God) last week, the Clinton administration has been solidly and bluntly behind them, placing blame for the crisis solely on rocket attacks into northern Israel by the Lebanon-based guerrillas. Civilian casualties caused by Israeli strikes have brought no direct U.S. criticism.

"It's a different situation," said a senior official, who declined to be quoted by name. He acknowledged a change from the way the administration reacted to past crises in the region. "We've responded in a different manner."

Administration officials deny charges from Israel's critics that the United States is trying to shore up the Labor government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in advance of elections six weeks from now.

Mr. Peres has been a far more ardent proponent of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement than his Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. Such an accord is a top priority of President Clinton, who hopes to campaign as a peacemaker.

What prompted the clearly pro-Israel stance is the "unprovoked" and "increasingly lethal" nature of Hezbollah's Katyusha rocket attacks into northern Israel, the senior official said.

The American aim now is to persuade Syria and Lebanon to make a U.S.-brokered 1993 unwritten understanding with Israel more explicit and prevent future attacks against Israeli civilians, the official said. Until that happens, he continued, Israel has "a long list of targets" it can attack.

The diplomatic effort began over the weekend with contacts between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Middle Eastern and European leaders, including Mr. Peres, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the French and Syrian foreign ministers. So far, however, those moves haven't produced results.

Lebanon has repeatedly been a source of strain between the United States and Israel since 1978, when Israel invaded its northern neighbor to halt attacks from Palestinian bases inside the country and followed in 1982 with a full-blown invasion and the occupation of Beirut.

Since Israel's withdrawal in 1985, the Jewish state has maintained a buffer zone in southern Lebanon that is a repeated target of attacks by the Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas. American officials say the United States is willing to tolerate attacks against Israeli forces in the so-called Israeli "security zone" -- which is Lebanese territory -- but not across the border into Israel.

Starting with Mr. Christopher last Thursday, administration spokesmen have sought to avoid letting Lebanon cause renewed U.S.-Israeli friction. Instead they have maintained a drumbeat of criticism against Hezbollah, demanding that it stop the rocket attacks into Israel without calling on Israel to show similar restraint.

The changed U.S. attitude has been obvious to the Israeli government. "There's no doubt about it," said an Israeli official who refused to be identified. "In the past they would always call for restraint by all parties and for solving problems not through violence but through diplomatic channels."

Israel didn't consult the White House in advance -- it usually doesn't -- but its repeated public statements ought to have made clear to the United States that Israel planned to react forcefully against Hezbollah, this official said. So far, U.S. officials have raised no objection to any Israeli use of U.S.-supplied weapons, the official said.

Asked if the Clinton administration wasn't flashing Israel a "green light" for continued retaliatory attacks, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies replied yesterday: "What we're trying to do is flash a big, fat red light on what Hezbollah's been up to, and flash a red light on the violence that's occurring there."

"They will do nothing to jeopardize the Peres re-election and do nothing to pressure Israel," complained James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute. "I don't know how many Lebanese have to die for Peres to win." He charged that the U.S. stance had undercut its role as mediator and honest broker.

As with past crises in Lebanon, the current explosion occurred during a lull in the U.S.-brokered talks between Israel and Syria, which maintains substantial control over Lebanon by keeping 35,000 soldiers there.

"There is always a race between violence on the ground and progress at the peace table," said Edward Djerejian, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to both Syria and Israel.

"There really is no way out of this by military means," said Mr. Djerejian, who now directs a foreign affairs institute at Rice University set up by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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