Daylight between White House, State on Nablus attack
- Washington Post
From White House, State: 2 Responses to Israeli Attack
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2001; Page A01
The State Department "strongly deplored" an Israeli helicopter attack
yesterday on the office of a militant Palestinian group that killed eight
people, including two children, but the White House issued a more measured
statement urging that both sides abide by a U.S.-brokered cease-fire
This marked the second time in as many days that the White House was more
reluctant than State to weigh in aggressively on the mounting turmoil in the
Middle East. On Monday, the White House played down the prospect that the
United States would soon send monitors to the region, an initiative that
American diplomats have been trying to sell to Israeli and Palestinian
Former American diplomats attributed the gap between the State Department
and the White House to their different audiences. While State does daily
business with foreign governments alarmed by Israeli tactics and the surging
violence, the White House has its sights on domestic politics and the
sensitivities of a pro-Israel Congress.
"I see a White House that is very reluctant to move ahead in a way that
crosses the wires of its domestic agenda," said Edward S. Walker Jr., who
was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs until this spring.
The comments by Bush administration officials came as they grappled with the
reality that a truce brokered two months ago by CIA Director George J. Tenet
has failed to take hold and a breakthrough in peace talks seems remote.
At the State Department, which has repeatedly criticized Israeli
assassinations of suspected Palestinian militants, officials used especially
tough language yesterday after the attack on a Hamas political office in
"We deeply regret and strongly deplore the killing of civilians," said State
Department spokesman Charles F. Hunter. "We condemn terror in the strongest
possible terms. The Israeli action today, however, was excessive. The attack
represents an escalation, is highly provocative and makes efforts to restore
calm much more difficult."
Hunter said yesterday's violence represented a "new and dangerous
escalation" and warned, "Both sides should recognize that down the path of
escalation and retaliation lies disaster." He added that Deputy Secretary of
State Richard L. Armitage had raised American concerns about the killings
with Israeli cabinet secretary Gideon Saar, who began a visit to Washington
Shortly after State Department officials issued their condemnation of
Israeli tactics, President Bush made a far more restrained statement.
"I wish the levels of violence were lower than they are today. A couple of
weeks ago it looked like we had made progress, and then the violence spiked.
That means the United States will continue to stay actively involved and
urging there to be calm and urging both parties to resist the temptation to
resort to violence," Bush said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called for the two sides to follow
recommendations for restoring mutual confidence that were made by an
international commission led by former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine).
"When the president talks about a cessation of violence and a cease-fire, it
means no killing of anybody. And of course that applies to civilians,"
A day earlier, Fleischer had also struck a different tone than his
counterparts in Foggy Bottom. He said U.S. monitors would not be sent to the
region until after a lasting cease-fire had taken hold and the United
States, working with other governments, had made progress in carrying out
the Mitchell panel recommendations. "Only at that time will the question of
monitors possibly come up," he said Monday.
Hunter, by contrast, spoke the same day of moving "as quickly as possible
into the next phase of the Mitchell committee process." Under the plan
envisioned at the State Department, the administration would dispatch a team
of about 10 monitors once it was able to win agreement from the sides.
Samuel W. Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the White House
and the State Department have long had different considerations when
confronted with Middle East violence. The State Department is more likely to
reflect the concerns that American diplomats hear from European and Arab
capitals about Israeli infractions of international law. The White House is
more attuned to American politics and the impact that a policy critical of
Israel could have on domestic priorities.
He said this tension is likely to increase as the Palestinian uprising draws
a sharper Israeli response. "The more bloodshed there is, the more the
United States will face a dilemma of this kind," Lewis said.
Walker said State has been "way out in front" in criticizing Israel for
extrajudicial killings. Yet as long as Israeli officials spot daylight
between State and the White House, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government
is unlikely to temper the practice, according to Walker, who is president of
the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said the raid on Hamas "was active
self-defense. We're stopping them from continuing to attack us."
The White House, meanwhile, is hesitant to pursue a Middle East policy that
could offend Congress and undercut Bush's domestic agenda, especially when
the balance of power on Capitol Hill is so delicate, Walker said.
The pro-Israel sympathies of Congress were most recently manifest on
Thursday when a House Middle East subcommittee peppered William J. Burns,
Walker's successor, with questions about why the administration was not
taking a harder line with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
� 2001 The Washington Post Company
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