WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres yesterday labeled Islamic fundamentalism the world's most dangerous movement after communism and fascism, and said it has a destructive potential comparable to Hitler's.
Mr. Peres portrayed the future of the Middle East in stark terms: as a conflict between a modern, pro-peace coalition of countries that includes Israel, Turkey and moderate Arab states, and hostile forces inspired and supported by Iran.
"It is not the first time there are evil movements in history; it is the first time in history that an evil movement may get hold of nuclear weapons or missiles. And this combination is catastrophic," Mr. Peres said. He made clear that he equated fundamentalism with Islamic extremism and two of the most violent anti-Israel groups: Hezbollah -- the Party of God -- in Lebanon and the Palestinian movement Hamas.
The prime minister's rhetoric set him apart from the Clinton administration, which has avoided linking religion and extremism, and drew a rebuke from an Arab-American leader, who accused him of indulging in a new form of McCarthyism.
Mr. Peres' remarks came on the second day of a Washington visit intended to highlight recent Israeli and American moves to get the Middle East peace process back on track and bolster his chances of winning re-election when Israelis go to polls May 29.
Late last week, Secretary of State Warren Christopher nailed down an accord among Israel, Syria and Lebanon to halt cross-border attacks between Israel and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
That deal roughly coincided with a vote by the Palestinian leadership to abandon its one-time goal of destroying the Jewish state. While Israeli-Syrian talks remain stalled, talks between Israel and the Palestinians will resume May 4, Mr. Peres said.
As the pace of Middle East diplomacy picked up, President Clinton prepared to welcome to the White House tomorrow Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who engineered the vote long sought by Israel and the United States. Palestinian officials said Mr. Arafat wants Mr. Clinton's help in pressuring Israel to ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinians that followed recent suicide bombings.
Mr. Peres, speaking yesterday in a breakfast speech and discussion period sponsored by the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, called on Europeans to join the United States and Israel in trying to "intercept" Middle East radicals before they can carry out plans designed to destroy the peace process.
"I see in fundamentalism the most dangerous movement after communism and fascism," he said. "And I think it doesn't have responsibilities, it doesn't have any discriminations, it doesn't have any restraints, it doesn't have what is so basic in all religions: a respect for human life."
Mr. Peres said that fundamentalists appeal to a large, and largely poor, population. He went on to warn of the danger of their acquiring nuclear weaponry, which U.S. intelligence officials suspect is Iran's intention.
"Deep in in my heart, I think what would happen if Hitler would acquire a nuclear bomb," he said, rhetorically posing the question of how this would have changed the course of the 20th century.
"And for that reason, I believe the earlier we shall intercept this danger, the less victims and the less damage will be caused."
Mr. Peres said that while "the United States is trying to do their very best" to combat terrorism inspired by Iran, he doubted that Europeans, who still maintain relations with Iran, would follow suit.
In fact, while the Clinton administration is extremely close to the Peres government on most matters, its policy on this question is somewhat different. It has always tried to isolate Iran and the terrorist groups it supports, but has avoided citing religion as the essence of the problem. Officials generally avoid the imprecise term "fundamentalism," noting that some pro-Western powers like Saudi Arabia could be described as fundamentalist.
Mr. Clinton resisted a chance to echo Mr. Peres' tough language on Sunday night. In a speech to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, meeting in Washington, Mr. Clinton omitted ......TC speechwriter's reference to "desperate, twisted souls" who try to derail the peace process through terror.
"Islam is not the enemy; the enemy is extremism," said a State Department official, enunciating the U.S. position. "It has nothing to do with religion per se. It has to do with actions and operations. We don't see a grand fundamentalist conspiracy."
James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, accused Mr. Peres of resorting to the same kind of thinking that prevailed in the United States during much of the Cold War, when regional conflicts were routinely blamed by senior officials on the spread of communism.
"He's making the same mistake that we made during the Cold War when we saw in every domestic or international problem the hand of communism," he said. Israel needs to "own up to paternity" and recognize that injustice often feeds extremism, he said; "We're back in the McCarthy period again."
William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the University of Virginia, said that Mr. Peres may be exaggerating the danger posed by Islamic extremism in order to show that Israel and the West need to remain united against a common threat.
Pub Date: 4/30/96