Powell, backed by Bush, criticizes Israel for seizing Palestinian area

U.S. seems more willing than under Clinton to put pressure on longtime ally

April 18, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's sharp rebuke of Israel yesterday served to escalate U.S. pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and offered fresh evidence that President Bush will be more willing than Bill Clinton was to admonish the longtime U.S. ally.

Powell called Israel's seizure of a piece of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip "excessive and disproportionate" and called on Israel to honor commitments of land it has made to the Palestinians.

At the same time, the secretary was careful to blame a Palestinian mortar attack for provoking the Israeli incursion. But his censure of Israel was the harshest yet from the Bush administration and contrasted with the milder, often formulaic language used by the Clinton administration when Israeli-Palestinian violence flared.

Powell's statement reflected U.S. fears of a widening Middle East conflict that have followed not only the Gaza hostilities but also an attack by Hezbollah guerrillas on Israeli forces near the Lebanon border and a retaliatory strike by Israel on a Syrian position in Lebanon, said an administration official.

But the main trigger for Powell's rebuke, the official said, was Israel's incursion into Gaza and its apparent reluctance to withdraw from territory it had ceded to Palestinian control under the Oslo peace process.

Previous Israeli forays into Palestinian areas always had been brief and Washington had implicitly approved them as necessary for Israel's self-defense. But before Israel bowed to U.S. pressure last night and agreed to withdraw its forces, Washington was alarmed that Israeli officials were talking about occupying the Gaza pocket for months if necessary as a way to create a buffer zone against Palestinian mortar attacks.

"What we're looking at now," the administration official said, "raises questions about the Israelis' commitment to agreements they have already signed."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president endorsed Powell's statement. For any U.S. president, direct criticism of Israel carries political risks because of strong support for that country in Congress and among Jewish voters.

The level of U.S. rhetoric has risen with the degree of strife and volatility in the region. But it also fits a pattern of criticism of Israel by the Bush administration that was largely missing when Clinton was trying to salvage a permanent peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Middle East specialists said.

"The U.S. is not in the facilitator-mediator role anymore and therefore is not trying to mollify both sides with its statements," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The U.S. is going to call a spade a spade, and I think there are a lot of people who are going to find that refreshing."

The Bush administration has been highly reluctant to become directly involved in Israeli-Palestinian relations and repeatedly has called on the parties to take the lead in pursuing peace. In February, the State Department faulted the previous Israeli administration under Ehud Barak for "excessive force" in dealing with the Palestinian uprising that followed last summer's failed Camp David peace talks.

This month, the State Department called Sharon's plans for building 700 homes for Jewish settlers in West Bank settlements "provocative" and "inflaming an already volatile situation."

By contrast, the Clinton administration voted in October against a United Nations resolution condemning Israel for "excessive use of force" against the Palestinians.

The Clinton administration did criticize Israel in November, saying "excessive use of force is not the right way to go" after Israeli helicopters fired rockets on Palestinian positions. But unlike Powell's admonishment yesterday, that statement was attributed to a State Department spokesman, not to the secretary of state himself.

Generally, the Clinton administration would respond to Israeli-Palestinian strife by deploring the violence without assigning blame.

"Under Clinton, it was just a very different situation," said Thomas Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum. "When the agenda was achieving a near-term peace agreement, the United States was willing to go easy on the parties regarding violations of previous agreements. Now, the issue is less achieving peace than preventing war, and the U.S. has adopted a different tone."

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